The long, richly storied history of horror cinema is layered with iconic (and not so iconic) creatures that go bump in the night. The overwhelming majority of such beasts are depicted as foul, nefarious, maleficent; they frighten and torment, always posing as a threat to humanity’s well-being. That need not necessarily be the case, however. Why should such beings be painted as the villains, seemingly finding enthusiasm exclusively in the torment of others? Can these oddly looking, unorthodox personalities not have a different raison d’être, or be misunderstood by the general populace? If only there was someone with enough courage to delve into the darkness to discover that it in fact holds more shades of grey than black.
The Father’s Shadow follows Dalva (Nina Medeiros), a young girl living with her construction-site-worker father, Jorge (Julio Machado), and aunt Cristina (Lucina Paes). Her mother sadly passed away some time ago, leaving parenting duties to the gentleman, with the lady filling in part-time as she engages in an exacting on-again, off-again relationship with a boyfriend. Cristina is a believer of sorts in mysticism, occasionally delivering small incantations just before bed in the hopes that this time her lover will finally remain true. She is not the true witch, however. Rather, the quiet, particularly reserved Dalva is — although she’d never boast about it — but it is not clear just how influential her powers are. Suffice to say that Dalva’s mysterious understanding of magic does have pull in making her aunt’s boyfriend return (again), but things are much more testy with her lumbering father. Night shifts, a friend recently dying while on the job, exhaustion, disengaged; suffice to say Jorge is not a model parent. What Dalva really needs — and really misses — is her mother. Maybe, just maybe…
Written and directed by Gabriela Amaral Almeida, The Father’s Shadow is the sort of film that only comes around once in a while — the perfect marriage between genre ghoulishness, mystery, and genuinely earned drama, ripe with characters that the viewer deeply desires to see happy by the film’s end. So often ghost and monster movies feature characters that might be funny, might be somewhat engaging, but generally adhere to age-old personality tropes that tick off the boxes needed to make a ‘horror film.’ Then there are more rare breeds like The Father’s Shadow, a movie that strives for something more. Not implicitly better, for that would imply that general horror movie fair is to be snubbed (why would we enjoy Fantasia so much were that the case?), yet aiming for something that makes a horror movie that much more whole, and that much more dramatically satisfying.
Almeida’s picture takes itself very seriously. There is nary a joke told by any of the characters, but then again why should they laugh? Dalva is an introvert who wields a power she herself may not fully comprehend yet, not to mention she suffers from the discomforting vibe of forgetting what her mother looked like, as she admits at one point to her father. The latter is constantly tired from pathetic working conditions, compounded exponentially by a nasty gash in his back he acquires while on the site — an injury that takes its toll, so much so that he starts coming across as, shall we say, zombie-like?
They live in a world that hasn’t done them any favours, yet survive they do. In a nice ironic twist, while the film as a whole keeps a straight face, Dalva spends much of her nights alone on the sofa watching B-grade horror flicks from yesteryear, replete with shrieks, ghouls, and blood. For Dalva, her entire universe is viewed through the prism of fantasy and horror, albeit of the subdued Brazilian variety. For horror fans, Almeida’s endeavour is a welcome marriage between two filmmaking schools of thought, with obvious nods made towards trashy B-movies whilst dedicating herself to realizing a more high-minded approach.
Speaking of Dalva, what a marvellous performance from young Nina Medeiros. If there is one thing that movie history has taught critics, the movie going public, and filmmakers themselves, it’s that child actors are a dicey proposition. When the casting works, it can be a beautiful revelation, but when it doesn’t…oops. The Father’s Shadow can count its blessings for having little Nina land firmly in the former category. What’s more, she isn’t given much dialogue, implying that her look, stares, and reactions must carry the role and the film in general to the finish line. Adult actors who aren’t supplied much dialogue can sometimes have their work cut out for them simply because they’re aren’t especially good at emoting, so the fact that Medeiros is not only good but subtle about her character’s emotions is truly deserving of praise.
As previously alluded to, The Father’s Shadow finds its winning formula playing things differently with the creatures and dark arts it pretends exist. There is understandably a creepiness to some of the scenes, mainly because the movie keeps its cards close to its vest and it is rarely a given just exactly how things are going to play out. It should be pointed out that there is one malevolent being that stalks the construction site, so the film doesn’t pretend that everyone is kind at heart, although even that spectre appears to only gravitate towards people that are miserable to begin with. As the plot moves forward, the growing feeling is that Almeida wants to depict a universe in which what ordinarily would be considered ghastly actually contains more nuance. Everyone and everything has its own conscious and beating heart — even things that be conjured from underground. Amidst the mystery and suspense is sweetness, a desire to walk in the shadows; because if people don’t, then how can they be so certain that they obligatorily hide evil?
Every year has its one genre film that feels and moves differently than most of what the movie landscape has to offer. It is still July, and many more films will be released in the remaining months, so one should not make premature statements regarding ‘year’s best’ and the like. Nevertheless, The Father’s Shadow is a special movie. It is special thanks to its lead actress, its story, its general mood, and for finding a delicate balance between the grim and the grandiose. By giving the film a chance, the viewer may find him or herself under Dalva’s spell too.