Are esoteric rituals something kids grow out of? Horror movie fans are the wrong people to ask. Regardless, nine-year-old Dalva’s natural affinity for magic and her motivations for dabbling are not going away anytime soon. Mending her family will take extreme measures, but she is willing to risk opening Pandora’s Box in Gabriela Amaral Almeida’s The Father’s Shadow, which won the Best Actress Award and Special Jury Mention at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Young Dalva is nowhere close to being over her mother’s untimely death, but she is still in much better shape than her father Jorge. He has basically shut down, robotically laboring away in his Sao Paulo construction job and barely going through the motions at home. In contrast, Dalva soaks up her Aunt Cristina’s white magic lessons that she in turn applies on behalf of her classmates. Maybe that is not such a good idea, but at least she is being social.
Unfortunately, when Cristina gets engaged to the distribution marketing stooge of her dreams, she leaves Dalva solely in Jorge’s sullen care. Alas, her father further withdraws into himself when his best friend at work is laid-off and subsequently dies in an accident that might very well be suicide. Jorge only rouses himself to roughly forbid Dalva’s practice of the mysterious craft, which drives them even further apart.
Father’s Shadow represents a considerable change of pace after the bloody chaos of Amaral’s first feature, Friendly Beast, like a change-up following a fastball, in American baseball terms. There is still a pronounced class consciousness, but it manifests itself in drastically different ways. Dalva’s environment is desperately poor and her father is as working-class as one can be, but that is the only reality she ever knew and as natural as the air she breathes.
By cinematic standards, Father’s Shadow is unusually evocative. You can practically feel the heat from the blow-torches at the construction site and smell the earth when Dalva’s mother is exhumed from the graveyard, so she can be reinterred in a cheaper drawer (talk about bad karma) early in the film. However, many of the genre elements are not fully and consistently realized, like the ominous welder shadowing Jorge, who sometimes appears to be a symbolic embodiment of his guilt, while other times he could have stepped out of a vintage slasher movie.
Frankly, it is hard to decide what to make of Father’s Shadow, because it struggles with its own identity crisis. Yet, it is safe to say young Nina Medeiros will impress everyone as Dalva. It is an eerie and ambiguous performance, but her pain and vulnerability are always palpable. Nobody will begrudge her the Best Actress award she snagged at this year’s Fantasia, like the Anna Paquin of Brazilian horror.
Arguably, Father’s Shadow signals a bit of a trend towards art-house horror in Brazil, along with Marco Dutra & Juliana Rojas’s Good Manners, but the earlier werewolf film was slyer and ultimately more satisfying in genre terms. Both Medeiros and Amaral show a facility for handling a wide spectrum of extreme emotions, but this film is more likely to be remembered as a stepping stone in their careers rather than as a genre touchstone to return to periodically. So, cheers Nina Medeiros. It is a film you will respect, but Friendly Beasts was much more fun. Recommended for viewers who take their horror with a strong dose social realism, Father’s Shadow should have a long festival life after its North American premiere (with nicely translated English subtitles) at this year’s Fantasia. Portuguese translation to come, courtesy of the truly amazing Angelica Sakurada.