‘Alma Viva’ Unearths The Horror And Magic Within Families: Cannes Review : The Indiependent
Through the eyes of our protagonist, young Salome (Lua Michel), Cristèle Alves Meira’s first feature highlights the fragility of tradition when a family’s matriarch dies and relatives descend into sacrilegious fights and haunting threats.
Alma Viva follows a grieving Portuguese family and its relationship dynamics after the unexpected death of their beloved matriarch. The film sporadically floats between spirituality and realism. This effect is partially aided by the organic casting of Salome, who is Meira’s daughter in real life. At the beginning of the Portuguese-French Critics’ Week debut screening at the Cannes Film Festival, Meira shared with the audience that the inspiration for the film flourished whilst she was pregnant with her daughter Lua. This maternal influence is crafted into a tale about unconditional love, evoking elements of ghostly horror when the family’s fractures are unearthed.
Set in a rural Portuguese village, surrounded by a mountainous landscape as old as the religious folklore embedded into the family’s foundations, Alma Viva follows Salome’s coming-of-age story intertwined with family drama as she travels to the Trás-os-Montes region village for the summer. She’s there to visit her grandmother Avo (Ester Catalão), her auntie (Ana Padrão) and uncle (Pedro Lacerda) whilst her mother remains in France working. Avo shares with Salome how to communicate with the village’s restless spirits, introducing her to the world of spirituality, whilst Salome expresses her love for her grandmother with twerking sessions and playing ‘dress-up’, freeing the juvenescence within an old soul.
When Avo dies, the locals who condemned her for sleeping with one of the neighbours’ husbands spitefully accuse Salome’s grandmother of being a witch. The crushing tragedy of her death suffocates the family. Open arms mould into fistfights; loving words turn into poisonous insults thrown like daggers. And Salome, fittingly named after the biblical allegory of a mother’s weapon for vengeance, becomes possessed by her grandmother’s spirit and seeks revenge on her behalf.
The audience follows Salome sleepwalking through the silent streets as she attempts to navigate her understanding of good and evil in spirituality. She eventually neglects the role of an avenging angel to seek justice for her grandmother, channelling the otherworldly presence within her to glue the shattered fragments of her family back together.
Amongst the spiritual abstract, Alma Viva is a portrait of family, depicting both the dark undertones and highlights. Like her short film Campo de Víboras, Meira uses the Portuguese landscape, taking advantage of the sunlight and rain, as a plot device to ground the film’s surrealist themes in naturalism. Family dynamics are explored in the economically deprived village, forgotten by relatives like Salome’s uncle, who left for material success in France. He rarely visits but when he does, he finds time to flaunt his new car or wife. The character development of each relative is underpinned by these resentments and inheritance politics, which adds fuel to the fire. It’s a refreshing and satisfying form of storytelling that strikes the right balance between an absurd environment and realism within the characters.
In their local community, patriarchy is soiled into the village’s terrain and manifests through sorcery accusations against Ava rather than the husband with whom she had sex, leaping to the conclusion that a woman is to blame for a wildfire that chokes the village. Cinematographer Rui Poças’ camerawork allows the audience to peer through the eyes of Salome by framing scenes from under tables, or glimpsing through curtains and cracks in walls. Salome is neither seen nor heard, only observing.
Throughout the film, family members continuously project onto Salome objectifying opinions packaged as compliments, like “you’re grown up now, you’re beautiful” and “the gift you have could get you in trouble.” Meira excellently conveys how this sexist language can manifest later in life by mirroring it with Salome’s older relatives, who refer to each other as “whores” and “bitches.” It’s not a unique commentary on sexism, but it’s executed meticulously.
Cristèle Alves Meira’s first-time feature is a charming watch. Whilst it is layered with many ideas that sprout from its broader themes of spirituality, family tradition, and social mobility, the storytelling remains simple and focused on balancing this subject matter with precision and heart.
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