[Fantasia Festival 2019 Review] The Father's Shadow

Black magic brings unpredictable results in the dour and somber slowburn The Father’s Shadow, a story about a girl who just wants her mom back. The girl is Dalva (Nina Medeiros), who is introduced digging up a doll in a dead garden while her aunt Cristina (Luciana Paes) hangs laundry nearby. She’s looking after the girl while Dalva’s father Jorge (Julio Machado) works in construction. A little bit of their past is introduced in a brief conversation Cristina has with a member of child protective services. We learn that Dalva’s mom died in an accident two years prior.

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We also learn that Cristina is only staying with Dalva and Jorge temporarily because she’s planning to get married later in the year. But the truth is a little more complicated. Her beau is Elton (Rafael Raposo), and their relationship has seen its share of ups and downs. But Cristina has a spell to make him not see other women and to make it work this time. She seals it with a drop of blood and warns Dalva not to tell her father.

Dalva, herself, has a gift. She seems to know that Cristina’s spell isn’t going to work and actually does a little magic of her own to bring him back to her. “He’ll be back,” Davla tells Cristina one night. And before you know it, he is and they are getting married. Cristina moves in with Elton, leaving Dalva mostly home alone. And lonely.

Meanwhile, Jorge works his ass off at a construction site to the point he’s neglectful of Dalva. He doesn’t realize, for instance, that she’s on vacation from school. Or the name of the lady who brings Dalva lunch. He tells her he can’t look after her 24/7. Jorge’s as somber and dour as Dalva and it’s obvious that the weight of the world is sitting on her shoulders. “Everything is going to be alright,” Dalva tells him, placing her hand on his.

Except she’s wrong. Things will not be alright.

There’s a lot going on in this minimalistic horror movie. On the surface, it feels like a familial drama between reclusive father and his nine year old daughter. There’s an immense sadness hanging over Jorge, established prior to the film’s opening. But it’s an ambiguous sadness that I wish were explored a bit more fully. He doesn’t seem at ease with literally anyone. His best friend Almir (Dinho Lima Flor) works with him on construction sites, but their interactions are brusque and artificial. When Almir is summarily fired, he breaks down in front of Jorge and even grasps at him for a hug which Jorge not only doesn’t return but actively fights against. This is his best friend. His only friend visible in the movie. And yet he can’t even return his hug in a moment of need. So his friend throws himself off the construction site.

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Later, after tragedy strikes, we see Jorge alone in his bed, holding himself as the tears finally come. It’s the only time in the movie we see actual feeling in him. Instead, we’re treated to his wild-eyed fear as something sinister starts to haunt his work and the construction site takes on an oppressive feeling similar to that of Session 9’s dilapidated asylum.

This is where most of the genuine chills come into play and you’re never quite certain if they exist or have been brought on by the trauma and the injury Jorge has experienced. Failure hangs over everything Jorge does, but he wants to keep up a brave face so that when his sister offers to take Dalva into the more solid relationship she’s established with Elton, he rejects her. He’d rather risk everything than be seen as a failure of a father or as a “man.” As the burden gets heavy, Dalva succinctly sums him up to her friend Abigail (Clara Moura): “He’s becoming a zombie.”

There’s a definite message here, I think, on this machismo culture. It might be a reach to say this, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a romantic relationship (or at the very least sexual) between Jorge and his friend, and the defensive maneuver was a way of asserting Jorge’s “masculinity.” Who’s to say, though, because his relationships outside of the mercurial one with Dalva are never explained or explored. And that might be the most frustrating thing about The Father’s Shadow. It’s too ambiguous and narrow, putting the entire attention on father and daughter when there is a rich world just outside that could have been mined for more thematic depth.

As such, the middle section sags as there’s just not enough dramatic weight to carry the story and it’s not until the third act that things start to (slowly) escalate. Writer/Director Gabriela Amaral pulls a magnificent performance from Nina Medeiros while Julio Machado isn’t given much to work with as the father, except be surly and dour. Beautifully shot and acted, I wish the script were tighter and more interested in diving further into the emotional stakes of its characters. I love a good slow burn horror film, but the pacing lost me and the foreshadowing was a bit too heavy-handed that I was so far ahead of the story I was bored waiting for it to catch up.

Befitting the rest of the story, the climax and virtual lack of denouement left me unsatisfied. The story continually references Pet Sematary and Nigh of the Living Dead but doesn’t match their potency. The Father’s Shadow wants to say something about fatherhood and family, but it doesn’t seem to earn the oppressive and vaguely nihilistic ending that left me wanting more. I honestly thought I was going to love this movie because it seemed right up my alley. But with the ending feeling like a midpoint, it left me wondering what it was trying to say…if anything at all.