'The Father's Shadow' ('A sombra do pai'): Film Review | Tokyo 2018

Courtesy of Tokyo International Film Festival
A dark genre outing about death and dad.

Brazilian director Gabriela Amaral Almeida’s horror-inflected family drama revolves around a girl’s attempt to bring her deceased mother to life and shake her father out of his grief-stricken lethargy.

Mom's the word and morbidity the spirit in The Father’s Shadow, Gabriela Amaral Almeida's second feature. Revolving around an angst-ridden girl’s voodoo-infected attempt to make her broken family whole again, the film offers a brooding vehicle that’s equal parts Victor Erice, the auteur famous for tackling traumas through children’s eyes, and undead flicks like Night of the Living Dead, snippets of which are actually integrated into the narrative here.

Between the two, Amaral Almeida slants towards the latter. The latest in a line of Brazilian films that appropriate and localize traditional horror tropes — the most recent being Good Manners, the werewolf-in-Sao-Paulo thriller from Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra, and Dennison Ramalho’s corpse-whisperer-in-gangland drama The Nightshifter — the new pic is comparatively smaller in scale and ambition, and much less in conversation with the social circumstances from which it emerges.

It’s not much of a talky film, anyway, with its focus mainly on the fission-heavy bonds within the nuclear family. While the script, which Amaral Almeida also wrote, could definitely be tightened, there’s no denying the young director’s ability to conjure a doomed ambience out of an array of seemingly non-descript locations and inanimate objects.

Shadow is certainly a stylistic volte-face for Amaral Almeida, who made her debut last year with the high-octane, ultra-violent The Friendly Animal. A product of the Sundance Institute Lab in 2014 and then the indie festival’s feature film program, Father’s Shadow bowed at home at the Brasilia Film Festival before making its international premiere as a competition entry in Tokyo. With its dark atmospherics and deft technique, the film should be able to stoke some more fear at genre showcases on the festival circuit.

While papa does cut a lumbering presence throughout Father’s Shadow, its pivot is the absent mother. The film begins with her remains being unceremoniously exhumed from her grave and the girl Dalva (Nina Medeiros) examining the bits and pieces her stonemason father Jorge (Julio Machado) brought back home — a long ponytail, two teeth and a necklace among them. All this riles Jorge’s pragmatic sister Cristina (Luciana Paes), who has seemingly become the stand-in matriarch of the house. She demands Dalva bury the detritus outside, an order the girl quietly defies — to the lengths of actually wearing the necklace to school the next day.

As the story slowly unfolds, it’s clear both Dalva and Jorge are still mired in grief, their anguish brought into sharper focus as they become alone with each other after Cristina moves out to live with her fumbling herbal-pill salesman boyfriend. While the girl becomes ever more rugged in her determination to bring her mother back through shamanistic means, the father descends into ennui, a state made worse when his close friend, the welder Almir (Dinho Lima Flor), falls to his death after being laid off at work. Cleaning his dead friend’s brain-blood splatter on the ground and then clearing his locker, Jorge is again forced to deal with the relics of the departed — a specter which soon comes back to haunt him in a more tangible way, in the shape of an ominous figure dressed in Almir’s work uniform and lurking in the shadows.

As Jorge disintegrates, Dalva spends her time at home watching horror films about the reanimation of the deceased. Reality and fantasy converges one night, when she’s watching Night of the Living Dead and her father shuffles home and crashes on the floor. As she nurses him to some kind of recovery, Jorge becomes a combination of a half-conscious zombie (like the ones in Warm Bodies, say, but less photogenic) and Frankenstein’s monster. Dazed and wearing scruffy clothes a size too big for him, he forces Dalva to go with him for a walk "like a family," but ends up terrorizing the girl with uncontrollable behavior.

Distressed, Dalva soon discovers the way with which she could bring mama back to life and complete her family again. Then again, Father’s Shadows broaches the notion that everybody has a dark side eager to be let out — not just the obviously traumatized Dalva and Jorge, but also the girl’s nerdy, goody-two-shoes classmate Abigail (Clara Moura), what with her loathing of losing her parents’ attention after the arrival of her newborn baby brother.

But Father’s Shadows never veers towards a finale where inner demons emerge with a vengeance. Lensed by Barbara Alvarez, who also worked on The Friendly Animal, the film is a slow and gloomy affair thriving on a mix of close-ups of faces, bodies and things on one hand, and also empty spaces where the spirits of the dead could be imagined wandering. Valdy Lopes Jr.’s production design has helped in heightening the darkening doom throughout, while Rafael Cavalcanti’s music and Gabriela Cunha’s sound design facilitate the viewer in zeroing in on the small things that the immensely focused and receptive Dalva would pick up.

It’s evident that Amaral Almeida has planned on something more substantial and socially-conscious at the start, as shown in the illustration of the toil and exploitation Jorge and his co-workers have to contend with at a dusty construction site. But the story doesn’t exactly go there, and those allusions remain mere shadows, perhaps awaiting the opportunity of finally seeing the light in the near future.

Production company: ACERE
Cast: Nina Medeiros, Julio Machado, Luciana Paes
Director-screenwriter: Gabriela Amaral Almeida
Producers: Rune Tavares, Rodrigo Sarti Werthein, Rodrigo Teixeira
Director of photography: Barbara Alvarez
Production designer: Valdy Lopes Jr
Costume designer: Diogo Costa
Makeup designer: Andre Anastasio
Editor: Karen Akerman
Music: Rafael Cavalcanti
Sound designer: Gabriela Cunha
Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Stray Dogs

In Portuguese
92 minutes