A Sombra do Pai (English title: The Father’s Shadow). 2019.
Directed & Written by Gabriela Amaral.
Starring Nina Medeiros, Julio Machado, & Luciana Paes.
Acere / RT Features
Not Rated / 92 minutes
Drama / Horror
Gabriela Amaral’s latest work is obviously inspired by the Spanish drama The Spirit of the Beehive. Both films centre around young girls attempting to navigate the strangeness of childhood while reconciling their innocence with a harsh adult world around them. Amaral may have taken inspiration from Víctor Erice, but her horror drama has important contemporary worth all of its own.
Dalva (Nina Medeiros) is a little girl whose mother died in an accident. She’s left at home being cared for by her Aunt Cristina (Luciana Paes) and father, Jorge (Julio Machado), a stonemason. Cristina spends her time trying to find love, and Jorge is too consumed by the loss of his wife and a soul sucking job to worry about much else, so neither of them have the time necessary to look after the child.
This leaves Dalva to spend nights watching American horror movies, and trying to learn witchcraft to bring her mother back from the grave. She starts to notice that even though he’s still alive, her father is becoming a ghost before her very eyes.
A powerful loneliness pervades every shot of The Father’s Shadow. Little Dalva becomes like the viewer’s guide through a Limbo-like landscape, where she exists barely hanging onto the life she knows. At the same time she’s emerging through the looking glass of youthful innocence into a callous adult world she isn’t quite ready to deal with, one that challenges her already shaky understanding of life and death. Amaral, through the characters of Dalva and Jorge, explores how modern capitalist society hollows people, and families, out until they’re little more than walking corpses.
“Dead people belong in the graveyard”
Although the film revolves mainly around Dalva, her father is a big part of the story. Specifically his role in the working world comes to bear on his daughter. Jorge is a construction worker, so within Brazil’s rigid class structure he belongs to Class D, meaning he may not have finished high school and his monthly income is meagre. Brazil is a country with much leftover inequality from its past as a Portuguese colony and its status as the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery (1888). Someone like Jorge, in the construction industry, is vulnerable due to the dangerous conditions of his job, in contrast with someone like Cristina’s man Elton, who’s gone into business for himself selling American weight loss products. Elton is probably part of Class C with a high school education, perhaps some secondary education. This allows him a degree of social mobility. Jorge’s not so lucky.
There’s a scene in the film where Jorge’s friend and co-worker Almir (Dinho Lima Flor) is fired due to “cost cutting measures.” Almir later dies on the job site, presumably from suicide. Management responds by insisting it was a suicide, not an accident. They push for safety after the worker’s death, if only to cover their asses. It’s obviously bullshit. There’s budget for new helmets, new pamphlets, safety sessions, though they were supposedly cutting costs recently by letting go workers. They can’t even be bothered to clean up the bloody stain left from Almir’s fall. Work stops just long enough to scrape him off the ground.
It’s impossible to ignore real life statistics in relation with The Father’s Shadow. In 2016, the ministry of labour fined 340 Brazilian companies for using slave labour. In preparation for World Cup 2014 there were 8 construction-related deaths, from falls to fires. Spanning January 2013 to March 2016, 11 construction workers died constructing and refurbishing facilities used during the Rio Olympics. The show(s) went on, in spite of all the death in the name of spectacle, to make the country appear bright and shiny to those on the outside— all the while the country rots away from the inside. The results of this rot are seen clearly in Jorge’s gradual decline.
Jorge starts off in a bad place. He’s already mourning his dead wife when we meet him. The saddest thing is, he doesn’t have the time or privilege to mourn her fully because he has to worry about work. His whole existence is defined by the working world, alienating him from himself / his family. The image of his wife’s grave being exhumed, due to financial reasons, is paralleled by him working on the construction site, knocking a hole in a cement wall— her death and his work are all caught up in an economic flow. Coupled with Jorge’s friend dying on the site, his world is defined by capitalism and death. He becomes the walking proletariat dead. One shot of his face dissolves into the grey, peeling concrete wall of the job site, a portrait of his existence as tied to his job, like he’s a physical part of the site.
Another striking image is the mysterious welder Jorge keeps seeing at the construction site. When Jorge finally sees behind the welder’s mask there’s nothing— a literal black space. The welder has no identity, no face, wholly characterised by his occupation and not by any physical / personal qualities. Likewise, sparks from the welder’s torch in the background are significant. They light up the site’s shadows while Jorge zones out quietly, an eerie visual representing flashes of suicidal ideation brought on by the capitalist world’s psychological wear-and-tear. Its light draws the tired Jorge towards darkness until he’s close to the edge of the building, similar to Almir before his fall, trying to kill him physically like work has already deadened him mentally.
Jorge’s transformation into one of the zombie working class is an allegory for how capitalism divides families. Working parents, especially in a disparate class system like the one in Brazil, are often forced to leave children to fend for themselves. Jorge has less choice because of his wife’s death. This means Dalva is left to her own devices, whether dealing with the grief, or watching horror films at an inappropriately early age. She and her father are separated by economic need, as Jorge must prioritise work over caring for his daughter. An especially touching, simultaneously crushing image is featured above: Jorge, bruised and weary from his stonemason job, lies in bed and Dalva, just to be close to him, lies at his back using one of his work gloves as a pillow. She has to settle for a material part of him as physical contact, emphasising how capitalist forces invade and alter the lives of the lower working class.
A major part of The Father’s Shadow involves the title itself and how Jorge’s life casts a shadow over Dalva’s development. His absence creates a space where his daughter is left to figure out important aspects of life on her own. Aunt Cristina introduces her niece to folklore through love spells to try keeping Elton in her life, and soon Dalva is convinced she’s capable of “witchcraft.” This gives the girl a sense she’s no longer powerless in a world where she’s disenfranchised.
Dalva also watches horror films at too early an age— mostly because she has no parent or older sibling to explain it isn’t real— and they begin to give her a skewed perception of death. We see her watch George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Mary Lambert’s Stephen King adaptation, Pet Sematary. Both films deal with resurrecting the dead, and Lambert’s in particular involves how we deal with grief. Dalva’s belief she can use spells to raise the dead lead her into a fantasy world that acts as a macabre exoskeleton to shield her from painful realities in a cold, capitalist, death-filled world.
“No use paying to keep the dead dead”
Amaral’s second feature proves her brand of horror is firmly rooted in social realities. Some Western horror fans may roll their eyes. There’s often a cry of “It’s meant to be entertainment” and other like-minded choruses when, historically, the horror genre has been a vessel for social issues since the first scary stories were told around a fire. Horror’s many elements can provide a unique method for artists to convey important subject matter through fiction, and in an era of widening inequality across the globe these are necessary tools.
The Father’s Shadow is a perfectly Marxist horror, centred on the drama of a lower class family near collapse. Plenty of images will stand out to viewers interested in Amaral’s themes. Jorge stands in as a symbol of Brazil’s working class, who wither away into ghostly remnants of their former selves while the world continues without them. Dalva encompasses all the negative effects of the proletariat’s alienation from themselves and their families. Their situation is specific to Brazil, though the struggle itself is a universal one from South America right to Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada where Father Gore lives. Working class people are turned into zombies by a capitalist system every day, all over the globe. If only the pure hearts of children could resurrect us all.