Boarding school horror has carved a unique place for itself in film history. Between Picnic at Hanging Rock, Dead Poets Society and even the Harry Potter franchise, these films combine the psychological ravages of puberty with the built-in creepiness of a cloistered, academic setting. The genre has become a safe bet for youthful competitiveness, flaring tempers and sexual metaphors. With Children of the Night, debut director Andrea De Sica (yes, the grandson of the famous Vittorio De Sica) has made an intriguingly original contribution to the group. The film is a moody and involving thriller, albeit with a few pedagogic clichés.
Parked outside his foreboding new boarding school in the Alps, the gentle Giulio (Vincenzo Crea) asks his mother why he can’t stay with her. His mother, who remains unseen, doesn’t have a good answer. Abandonment is the name of the game, and every spoiled, troublemaking kid shacked up in this elite school has the same sob story to tell. As soon as Giulio steps onto the icy driveway and turns to say goodbye, she’s already gone. With this opening scene, De Sica has planted the seed of every troubled rich boy’s ruin. Their parents care about money, business and travel — not cautious and affectionate child rearing. Forgiving the film this simplistic scapegoating, De Sica’s confident style and moody setting is enough to maintain interest.
During the principal introductory speech about the first-rate education the boys will receive and their status as future leaders, Giulio catches a glimpse of Eduardo (Ludovico Succio), a handsome classmate who’s refused to wear the uniform. The boy is slouching with messy hair and a t-shirt. Just like that, De Sica provides the baby-faced rebel that every high school drama needs.
Giulio admires Eduardo from afar until one night when Eduardo shows up in his room. Eduardo can’t sleep, so the boys sit in a windowsill and talk about their parents, bonding over their shared trauma of neglect. As they get closer, Eduardo volunteers to stay with the orphaned Giulio over Christmas break, while the sinister tutor Mathias (Fabrizio Rongione) watches them both in class and secretly through the school’s security cameras. What’s that about? De Sica is smart enough not to say.
The best friends sneak off into the woods after dark, and right when you think this whole boarding school thing is a bore, they come upon a thriving sex den. It’s totally improbable, but that’s what makes it so exciting. The girls inside are young — way too young — and, at times, De Sica’s camera seems to take a little too much pleasure in watching them writhe around the laps of weird, old men. But maybe he’s just seeing through the eyes of Giulio who is entranced by one of the skinny blondes. For unknown reasons, she’s desperate to seduce him, but he takes off in fear. He seems to take more pleasure in hanging out with Eduardo than watching the women, and it’s natural to wonder whether his affections lie more with the boy. This avenue goes sadly unexplored, and it’s too bad. An intimation of romance between the boys, even just a glimmer, would have been mature, original and believable.
Giulio’s bonds with the blonde girl and Eduardo feels increasingly left behind. As his jealousy grows and Mathias continues to hover, Eduardo eventually starts accusing the administration of unsavory behavior. He steals keys, digs into rooms he shouldn’t and starts making connections between the school’s strict policies and its ability to generate such heartlessly high-achievers. There’s something, or someone, lurking in the derelict top floor of the school, and Eduardo is determined to bring the truth to light.
De Sica shows neither Giulio’s mother nor anyone else’s parents, and their conspicuous absence makes sense. The vacancy left by responsible adults are the real ghosts that will haunt these poor boys for the rest of their lives. Except, of course, these boys aren’t actually poor. They’re rich, very rich, and it is in part the adults’ negligence that helps create that wealth. And herein lies the cycle of violent privilege that churns Children of the Night’s cynical core.
As one of the featured films in Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, it seems necessary to ask what makes this somewhat mainstream genre pic uniquely Italian. After all, it’s the sort of wide-appeal film that could easily be remade in the states. The answer would have to be the music. De Sica’s father Manuel was an accomplished film composer and following his untimely death in 2014, Andrea volunteered to score the film himself. Although he’s said he would never score a film again, the electronic pulses that thump throughout give Children of the Night a tense, energetic and undoubtedly European atmosphere and express as much, if not more, than the frequently wordless performances onscreen.
De Sica has mentioned The Shining and Dead Poets Society as influences, and Children of the Night is at its best when it favors the former. The cast and crew lived in the isolated Alpine villa where most of the film takes place and its Overlook Hotel-style inescapability seeps into the work. While the shadowy hallways, locked doors and ruined attics become a decisive presence in the film, the teenage angst never rises above that of the ordinary high school soap.
Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.