‘The Father’s Shadow’ Conjures Zombies in Brazil (Fantasia 2019)

The Father’s Shadow expands director Gabriela Amaral Almeida’s concept of a short film into a fully fledged feature about an exceptional young girl coping with a distant father and deceased mother in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Dalva (Nina Medeiros) lives with her father, Jorge (Julio Machado), a construction worker, and her aunt, Cristina (Luciana Paes). Her mother died two years before, plunging her father into a depression that he refuses to cope with as he withdraws from his daughter, family, and friends. Cristina has become a semi-surrogate mother, encouraging Dalva’s interest in witchcraft, as she casts spells to hold onto her boyfriend, Elton, and explains the thin veil between this world and the next. But Dalva is also magically talented. After an accident at work pushes Jorge to the edge, she begins to experiment with ways of bringing her mother back, thinning the veil even further as she combines her aunt’s teachings, her own powers, and her favorite zombie movies.

The Father’s Shadow is reminiscent—in a good way—of Issa Lopez’s Tigers are Not Afraid, which showed at Fantasia last year and which is itself part of an extensive tradition of magical realism in South American story and film. Both narratives centralize the experience of small children finding ways to cope with desperate circumstances—and monstrous adults—by finding comfort and friendship within the magical or supernatural. Neither of these films deny the existence of the supernatural—the children themselves are connected to the supernatural realms by virtue of their age and imaginations, their willingness to believe in curses, ghosts, shapeshifters, and zombies.

The Father’s Shadow blurs the lines between what Dalva is capable of and the reality of her experience by drawing in the adults as well. Cristina, some of Dalva’s friends, and other local women believe in the magic they craft, even though men like Jorge deny it. As she watches her father withdraw more when he injures his back (and refuses to go to a doctor), she becomes convinced that he’s turning into a zombie. But zombies are not really sources of terror—they’re potential sources of comfort, the possibility that her mother will return to her, and that she can save her father.

The film’s secondary thread focuses on Jorge, who begins seeing the ghost or zombie of a friend who committed suicide at the construction site. But the appearance of the ghost terrifies him—he cannot handle the concept of the dead returning or wanting to engage with him, even as he grieves for his wife and blames, somehow, her loss on his daughter. Dalva increasingly becomes his care-taker, doing the grocery shopping, cleaning his wound, getting him to go to work, but the weight of the responsibility is too much for a small child and she begins to push back against him and his unwillingness either to be a full parent or to leave her alone.

The film’s dark, at times frightening, and melancholic mis-en-scene highlights Almeida’s project of interrogating and criticizing the crises in Brazil. Masculinity here is at once exploited and oppressive, the inability to show emotion transforming the men into (literal) zombies. Male denial of magic and the supernatural goes hand in hand with an obsession with it—as Dalva becomes more powerful and indulges her desires more, so does her father see his deceased friend more often, the dual elements colliding to make him furious and release his daughter’s pent-up frustration.

The Father’s Shadow is a meticulously crafted work of magical realism, embedded in its culture and ethos. It’s the work of another intelligent, complex female director whose work will be fascinating to watch develop.

The Father’s Shadow is showing at Fantasia 2019 on July 22 and 23.

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