In the Critics Week opening film, a young girl becomes possessed by the spirit of her grandmother in Cristèle Alves Meira first feature film titled Alma Viva (Living Soul). The film lives up to its title as witchcraft, familial dysfunction and grief are essential to the plot in this charming coming of age story.
Salome (Lua Michel) travels to the Portuguese countryside for the summer to visit her grandmother Avo (Ester Catalao), aunt (Ana Padrão), and uncle (Pedro Lacerda), while her mother Aida (Jacqueline Corado) is away working. Her grandmother is a practicing witch who aims to teach the young girl the craft. When the grandmother suddenly dies, another one of Avo’s children, Joaqim (Arthur Brigas), shows up and the insanity begins. The family is plunged into chaos as they yell, scream, and fist fight over what to do with their mother’s body that is still in the house. While the adults are acting like brats, Salome sleepwalks through the town and wreaks some havoc of her own. The family is ostracized when the villagers begin to suspect the young girl is also a witch.
Alma Viva comes off as a serious film but there is a lot more levity than anticipates as their tumultuous family life, and the negative energy it emits, help to create films’ most comedic moments. Everything that happens in this town is a direct result of this family’s actions and Avo is upset from beyond the grave. She uses Salome to vent her frustrations with the way the family is behaving, and the child becomes a conduit for the disappointment felt by Avo’s spirit. Salome’s body is used to do some evil things, she also uses that as a reason to reunite her mother, aunts, and uncles.
The clean cinematography by Rui Poças takes advantage of the natural light that shines through the Portuguese clouds. Alma Viva is not about spectacle, but people, and Meira’s directing reflects this as the actors are the ones to cultivate the frigid family atmosphere. The spotlight is always on the characters but first-time actress Michel anchors it all. The actors take their cues from her and uses that energy and innocence to shape their performances.
Alma Viva is an engaging debut feature for the first time director. It’s a character driven piece of work that doesn’t waste time trying to be something it isn’t. Aside from some typical new direct mistakes, such as awkward shots and angles, this film is a project the cast and crew should be proud of. The valuable take away from Alma Viva is always no matter how poorly you and your siblings communicate, all you have is each other to rely on to the bitter end.
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