By the Light of Day from director Roberto Faenza forms part of the Luca Zingaretti collection, a selection of re-releases by Odyssey DVD. In the film, Zingaretti, who is most recognisable as the ‘inimitable’ Inspector Montalbano in the popular television series of the same name, takes the lead as the unlikely local hero, Father Puglisi, in this 2005 loose adaption of a true story.
By the Light of Day is set in early-nineties Palermo, Sicily, based on the true story of Don Giuseppe ‘Pino’ Puglisi, a Roman Catholic priest who sets out to improve the rough Brancaccio area of Palermo, attempting to change the apathetic and crime ridden attitudes of his parishioners. Sicily and the south of Italy was infamous for its poverty and the widespread socio-economic involvement of the Mafia; father Puglisi’s arrival in a corrupt community riddled by illegal activity forms the main source of tension in the film, as his attempts to alleviate their pervasive corruption directly disrupts Mafia interests.
The original Italian title, Alla Luce del Sole, literally translates to ‘Come into the Light’, and Faenza skilfully represents this idea through the contrasting lighting and settings of the film. During the film’s opening we see a night-time scene where the Mafioso and local street kids aggressively cheer on a dog fight; the flickering firelight is menacing, the scene deeply unsettling as we see young kids actively torture and kill animals. After the dark colouring of the opening, Puglisi first appears at dawn, after a nightmare, so we are literally ‘brought into the light’ of day by Puglisi.
After this opening, the bulk of the film is brightly coloured and beautifully shot, the static and suffocating heat of the coastal Brancaccio is captured in sunny shots of the empty and dilapidated town, which is also naturally stunning, full of greenery. The score is mostly simple, an accordion motif can often be heard underscoring emotional scenes, although when at one point, the cheesy Italian pop music enjoyed by some of the Mafia is heard over a sombre religious hymn during a religious procession, Faenza’s trope of positioning Puglisi against the Mafia is again noticeable.
Whilst films like Io non ho paura (2003) by Gabriele Salvatore investigate the socio-economic reasons behind crime and corruption in southern Italian communities, through developing complex characters and storylines telling of these communities themselves, in By the Light of Day, the Mafia presence is never really developed so that they exist as stock stereotypes, the ‘bad guys’, in the plot. Instead, Zingaretti dominates our screens with an excellent, emotive performance, which undeniably much of the film’s individual merit owes to this. Although, sometimes in the film it feels like Puglisi as a character overreaches what is possible and credible of a parish priest as he pursues social justice in a solitary and eventually dangerous way. Yet, nevertheless, Zingaretti is convincing in this role, his performance complex as he is both sensitive and stern, playful but serious; when we see Puglisi sobbing unrestrainedly in front of the camera it is a refreshing and unexpected moment, humanising his character.
There is a slight predictability in the plot, leaving some of what happens to feel like a self-fulfilling trope; Puglisi is able to befriend the same band of street kids from the dogfight within a few hours by presenting them with a football pitch and a few stern words, so that Puglisi’s function as ‘hero’ overrides the need for particularly convincing writing.
At points, the film verges on seeming cheesy or overly sentimental; at the grand-opening of his centre for disadvantaged children, where the street kids play alongside the cool and intelligent older students, there is a scene where a troublesome cigarette smoking street kid interrupts a nun’s sing-along by switching on a boom-box behind her, the nun is at first annoyed, but is placated by the sight of the children happily dancing together.
Perhaps this isn’t something to be criticised, though. Although a little cheesy, the willingness of the kids to trust the priest is justified by Zingaretti’s charisma and presence. The infrequent cheesy moments are palatable, and whilst there is potential for the sometimes clichéd and predictable plot and dialogue to seem stale, there are witty, funny moments which redeem these qualities. Supporting actors like Corrado Fortuna, who plays Puglisi’s young assistant deacon, is bubbly and his bantering with Puglisi provides comic relief, and Faenza’s direction of the street children is fantastic and essential to the film.
Despite its relative simplicity, By the Light of Day is aesthetically brilliant and offers compelling viewing. Zingaretti’s performance as a religious character, who is still fully relatable, compassionate and interesting, makes for a very engaging and enjoyable piece of modern Italian cinema.
By The Light Of Day is part of the Luca Zingaretti collection, available to buy now.