Last night, Fantasia 2019 hit me with the first real slow-burner of the festival: writer/director Gabriela Amaral Almeida’s second feature, The Father’s Shadow. The Brazilian export has been making festival rounds since last year, and from what I’ve seen, the response has been positive.
In fact, Fantasia awarded starring actress Nina Medeiros the festival’s Cheval Noir award for best actress, and the film got a special mention from the jury, which called it “a beautiful and dark tale about loss, grief, and fatherhood, resting entirely on the shoulders of an amazing upcoming young actress.”
I don’t plan to shake things up too drastically here, in terms of the film’s consistently positive reception. I thought The Father’s Shadow was a pretty solid feature overall, if a bit slow for me.
Set in an impoverished neighborhood of São Paulo, Dalva (Nina Medeiros) is a nine-year-old girl who lives with her father, Jorge (Julio Machado). Jorge struggles to make ends meet working a dangerous and exploitative construction job as a cement mason, but his real struggle is in trying to manage the all-consuming grief over his late wife’s death, which is quite literally turning him into a zombie.
Watching her father get consistently sicker, sadder, and scarier, the precocious Dalva takes matters into her own hands to try and repair her broken family by way of ritualistic sorcery—something she picked up from her Aunt Cristina after watching her perform a sort of love-based ritual in an effort to tie down her womanizing boyfriend. When it worked and the boyfriend returned to her, Cristina attributed the success of her ritual to Dalva’s “special gift.” And not least of all because she’s nine, Dalva went with it.
As the jury stated in their special mention, this really is a story centered around grief, loss, and fatherhood—a creative exploration of how deeply spousal loss can cut, through the lens of Jorge’s descension into zombiehood.
But as the jury also said, the entire film rests on the shoulders of the young Dalva, who we watch trying to reconcile her own momentus loss and grief at an age arguably too young to understand it. Though trapped in her all-too-real, underprivileged, and painful reality, Dalva finds fantastical means of giving herself control and agency and the power to move forward.
Nina Medeiros is absolutely fantastic in the role of Dalva and delivers a mature performance well beyond her years and experience. Opposite her, Julio Machado’s Jorge is equally fine-tuned, and his perfectly paced transformation is the grounding thoroughfare throughout the story.
Personally, while I respect the quality of The Father’s Shadow, it did leave some things to be desired. Though it nailed the classic horror tone and vibe in a lot of ways (the imagery, its pacing, and especially the final act), I didn’t feel the same kind of intention in the film’s few horror sequences leading up to the main event at the end. On that note, though, it was a really excellent main event, and the last ten or 15 minutes were my favorite of the film.
In all, Gabriela Amaral Almeida’s second feature is a dark, conceptual horror film, with pitch-perfect performances and a lot to offer. If you’re interested in an international slow-burn from a promising director, check it out.