Brazilian “The Father’s Shadow” is one of those occasional arthouse quasi-horror films, like “The Spirit of the Beehive” or Aussie “Celia,” in which the supernatural elements seem a poetical extension of a child protagonist’s distress at the inexplicable realities of the adult world. Recipient of a special jury prize (as well as an acting nod to its young lead) at Fantasia, Gabriela Amaral’s sophomore feature could parlay critical acclaim into offshore distribution beyond the festival circuit. Not entirely satisfying, it’s nonetheless a curiously poignant fable of profound premature loss, both enhanced and somewhat muddled by its slippery occult elements.
Nine-year-old Dalva (Nina Medeiros, who also appeared in the child werewolf film “Good Manners”) radiates a sullen suspicion that’s off-puttingly unusual for her age. But she has good reason for resentment: Her mother has recently died, and father Jorge (Julio Machado) is not coping well, to say the least. When not toiling at a toxic Sao Paolo building job he hates, he exists at their home like a zombie. He’s barely emotionally alive enough to acknowledge his daughter, let alone be an active parent. At least she’s got auntie Cristina (Luciana Paes), an amiable flake who encourages Dalva’s “gift” — nudging her apparent ability to cast spells toward “white magic” rather than anything more harmful.
But when it seems the little girl’s conjuring actually triggers a marriage proposal from Cristina’s on/off boyfriend (Rafael Raposo), auntie moves out. In his numbed despair, Jorge is helpless to prevent — or even detect — his child becoming de facto full-time housekeeper, cook and bill-payer, among other duties.
Her imagination fed by the horror movies she watches on TV (notably that eternally excerpted public-domain favorite “Night of the Living Dead”), Dalva becomes convinced that death is not an insurmountable obstacle. Though dad is vehement in his opposition to such morbid hocus-pocus, it’s inevitable that his daughter should be driven amid her worsening hardship toward attempting to resurrect Mom.
While it’s not inaccurate to paint “The Father’s Shadow” as a sort of favela “Pet Sematary,” there’s much more attention to bleak psychological realism here than to any gory or fantastical events. Subsidiary figures like Dalva’s little friend Abigail (Clara Moura) or dad’s workmate Almir (Dinho Lima Flor) also get absorbed into the otherworldly goings-on, albeit as a result of their own heartbreaking life circumstances. And it’s possible that whatever supernatural events get depicted occur only in their minds. Certainly we can’t trust the POV of Dalva, whose desperation to create domestic stability grows ever more divorced from reality — or that of Jorge, a man so depressed he scarcely notices his serious wound from a construction-site accident.
Not all of these ideas and narrative threads feel wholly worked out. At times Amaral’s intentions grow murky, and it’s unclear whether even she knows quite what they are. Still, the grieving atmosphere and narrative ambiguities are much more impactful than the rather glib snark of her 2017 debut “O Animal Cordial,” an accomplished but overly schematic black comedy spin on “The Petrified Forest.”
There’s a powerful sense of suggestive nuance not just to the lead performances but also to DP Barbara Alvarez’s alternately gritty and uncanny images, Rafael Cavalcanti’s spectral score, and other key elements in the thoughtful assembly. While this brew of low-key necromancy, family dysfunction and indirect social commentary doesn’t always mix perfectly, it nonetheless casts a potent, lingering spell.