Sunday, July 31, 2022

Fantasia ’22: My Grandfather’s Demons

Whittling in wood is definitely a grandpa kind of thing to do, but Rosa’s grandfather was a little different. He carved demons. It turns out, they represented the sins and regrets of his life. After his death, Rosa returns to his village, where she must exorcize his old demons, most metaphorically, in Nuno Beato’s My Grandfather’s Demons, Portugal’s first stop-motion animated feature, which screened at the 2022 Fantasia International FilmFestival.

It is quite a shock to Rosa when she learns her grandfather was the mean old man nobody liked. She had lost touch with him after she moved apartments, because she was consumed by her work. As a result, she was already carrying a load of guilt when she arrived. Then she learned his village blamed him for its misfortunes. At first, she dismisses their peasant superstitions, but her dreams are plagued by visions of the demonic figurines he carved.

Beato starts the film in the mode of traditional cell animation, but transitions to stop-motion when Rosa arrives at her grandfather’s farmhouse. The former is kind of quirky, but the clay-based animation creates a richly realized world, informed by local lore. Screenwriters Possidonio Cachapa and Cristina Pinheiro flirt with the fantastical, while maintaining an evocative sense of the mysterious. Of course, Rosa is definitely haunted, but in how many senses of the word?

Regardless, Rosa has a richer character development arc than most live action characters. Her struggles to come to terms with her grandfather’s legacy and atone for his mistakes is some pretty heavy, archetypal stuff. Plus, the music is lovely and the clay landscape looks ruggedly beautiful. It is hard to believe this is Beato’s first feature or Portugal’s first full-length stop-motion film, because it is so impressively realized.

The demons in the title might sound misleading, but there are still some creepy nightmarish sequences. Nevertheless, it is true they relate to deeper concerns regarding sin and redemption rather than mere jump-scares. It is not a horror film, but any horror fan who doesn’t enjoy it must be pretty dumb.

My Grandfather’s Demons is an unusually fresh and thoughtful animated film. (However, the Portuguese Portuguese they speak sounds pretty weird compared to Brazilian Portuguese. Maybe it’s the Northern accent.) This is a great example of animation as a vehicle for original on-screen drama. Very highly recommended, My Grandfather’s Demons had its North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia.