Like Stendhal Syndrome, this one surprised me. The overwhelming consensus is that Dario Argento’s latter day work is universally abysmal, and after Phantom of the Opera, which is unequivocally one of the worst movies I have ever seen, I had little hope for what lay ahead. Unlike Syndrome, however, this is one that I can recommend without the same kind of reservations about problematic sexpolitik that permeated that film. Non ho sonno (Sleepless) was released in 2001; this is the inaugural Argento giallo of the 21st Century, but its success lies in the way that it revisits the director’s standard bag of tricks, reinventing some while playing others straight.
In 1983, Chief Detective Ulisse Moretti (Max von Sydow) promises young Giacomo Gallo, a boy who just saw his mother murdered, that he will find the killer, even if it takes the rest of his life. The evidence indicates a person of small stature, and horror novelist Vincenzo de Fabritiis (Luca Fagioli), a neighbor who happens to be a little person, is convicted and dies while serving his time. Nearly twenty years later, a prostitute listens one night as an eccentric client babbles in his sleep about having committed the crimes of which Vincenzo was accused. In her haste to escape, she accidentally absconds with the killer’s envelope of newspaper clippings about the “Dwarf Killings,” as they were called; she boards a train and thinks she’s safe, but the killer silences her before she reaches her destination, although not before she tells another passenger about her discovery. He relates this information to the police, led by Inspector Manni (Paolo Maria Scalondro; the character shares a surname with both Asia Argento’s Inspector Anna Manni of Syndrome and the shoplifter whose murder opens Tenebrae which is an oddity worth remarking upon, even if it doesn’t amount to anything).
Manni visits the now-retired Moretti, looking for insight. A former department legend, Moretti’s mind has been clouded by age, and his sole companion on the road to dementia is his pet parrot. At the same time, the now-adult Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi) gets a call from his childhood friend Lorenzo (Roberto Zibetti), who tells him about the murder, prompting Giacomo’s return to Turin. Lorenzo’s father (Gabriele Lavia, who previously portrayed two separate characters named Carlo in Profondo rosso and Inferno) disapproves of Lorenzo’s aimless wanderlust and laziness, and has sent the younger man all over the world to different schools, hoping to ignite some passion in him. Giacomo strikes up a romance with harpist Gloria (Chiara Caselli), also a childhood friend, but he spends most of his time with Moretti; the two team up to find the killer, and an encounter with Laura de Fabritiis (Rosella Falk), the late Vincenzo’s mother, leads the duo to wonder if this copycat murderer is a copycat after all.
The circuitous mystery is secondary to other cinematic elements that Argento rarely explores but are of larger import in this film. His decline in quality as a director is arguable, but the sparsity of the bombastic, provocative, and imaginative use of color, space, and composition in comparison to his older works is empirically evident. Tenebrae and Phenomena were more deliberately monochromatic, setting off a trend; Opera was dominated by shadows and earthtones, but was visually sumptuous and engaging in other ways, with each film that followed being more drab than the last, looking cheaper and shoddier with every passing movie. Sleepless isn’t necessarily a return to form with regards to inventive cinematography, but it does feature several set pieces that effectively ramp up the tension while also being visually dynamic in a way that the director hadn’t shown an aptitude for in the nineties–not even once. The first of such set pieces, the chase aboard the train, stands out as being particularly remarkable, and may be one of the best from the director’s entire career.
More surprising than the upswing in cinematic sensitivity is the focus on character here, an element in which Argento has heretofore never demonstrated much interest. Of course, one of the biggest problems with being an American Argento fan has always been dealing with the dubbings of the film into English, some of which are decent but uninspiring and others of which are simply terrible. When an actor’s body language is inconsistent with the line readings of his or her dialogue, it really spoils the moment for the viewer and makes it that much more difficult to suspend disbelief and immerse oneself in the narrative. It’s more distracting in some films than in others (Phantom is, unsurprisingly, the worst with regards to this phenomenon, especially given that Julian Sands isn’t dubbed, throwing the bad dubbing of others into even starker relief), and it’s a consistent issue that I haven’t really addressed to this point because of its ubiquity, although I do try to make a point of noting when viewers have the better option of subtitles. I point this out because, in many cases, this causes his films that already feature unremarkable characterization and little-to-no subtlety to seemingly have no character development at all. In contrast to other Argento protagonists, Moretti is very well-defined, a man whose best days are behind him and with nothing ahead of him save the slow shuffle toward death; his struggles to remember potentially important details and clues from such an old case are fascinating to watch, and von Sydow sells the hell out of this script like the professional that he is.
His relationship with Dionisi’s Giacomo is also a welcome change, as romantic and/or sexual entanglement has dominated the relationships between characters in every one of Argento’s films since Opera. Like the pairing of Arnò and Giordani in Cat o’ Nine Tails and McGregor and Jennifer in Phenomenon, Giacomo and Moretti are a pair of intergenerational investigators, and their strengths and weaknesses complement each other while their history lends the investigation more emotional weight than it would otherwise. This relationship isn’t the only homage to earlier films, either. There’s a lot of Profondo rosso and Tenebrae in Sleepless‘ DNA. As in Profondo, there is a red herring killer, again played by Gabriele Lavia, and the killer’s leitmotif revolves around nursery rhymes while the killings themselves feature frenetic calliope music of the kind emitted by children’s toys. What’s particularly exciting about the revisitation of older ideas is that it lulls you into a false sense of security with regards to other repeated elements, allowing Argento to play with them. Every clue leads you to believe that there are two killers, as in Tenebrae, but the surprise is that there is only one. Most of Argento’s murderous villains begin to kill only when some repressed memory is awoken; here, the killer is supposedly dormant for seventeen years, leading an audience familiar with these films to assume that some traumatic event has triggered the spree. Instead, the the captured killer admits at the film’s conclusion that no one considered that he or she could have just been somewhere else.
It would be misleading, however, if I didn’t point out that Sleepless pales in comparison to those two films. There are problems here, most of them revolving around the identity of the killer, whose bad dubbing is notable even in this film, which features some of the more egregiously bad synching outside of Phantom. I also prefer when there is some logic to the selection of victims on the part of the killer, as in Trauma with its revenge list and Profondo, where each death is covering the tracks of an older crime. When the killings are more random or circumstantial, as in Phenomenon and Opera, there’s an added dimension of danger but less emotional investment, and I’ll take the latter over the former any day.
Still, so much of this film works that I ended up enjoying it quite a bit. It’s hard not to see a little bit of Argento in Moretti, an aging genius facing irrelevance and failure in his twilight years, but one whose facilities grow subtly sharper and stronger when he finds himself immersed in his craft once again. Goblin returns to provide the soundtrack for the film (for what is, to date, their last collaboration with Argento), which further gives the movie the feeling of having fallen through a crack in time from an earlier point in the director’s career. There’s also no CGI here (at least any that I can recognize), and the murders are well-done and convincing; as far as practical effects go, the killing of Giacomo’s mother as he watches from his hiding spot is probably one of the best from Argento’s entire oeuvre. It’s worth tracking down, especially as a not-as-good-but-still-noteworthy companion piece to Profondo and Tenebrae.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond