Originally published by Film International, 14 December 2016
A family group sits, nearly motionless, yet seething with tension, in a living room with peeling wallpaper and dead leaves blowing around the floor. A young man murders his brother and then grows crazed with guilt. A naked man and woman gently explore each other as if they have never before seen or touched another human being. These are some of the elements, tied together with a haunting sound score and an expressive gold and sepia color palette, that are used to fuse surreal dreams and biblical myths into The Kingdom of Shadows, a haunting and powerfully poetic feature film by Daniel Fawcett & Clara Pais, who are collectively known as The Underground Film Studio.
The film begins with primordial shapes which could be boulders. They turn out to be two bodies with black body paint. The bodies begin to move, breathe, stretch. Organic life emerges for the first time out of the inorganic, and The Kingdom of Shadows likewise seems to reach into primordial regions of the mind to produce its surreal psychodrama. No words are spoken in the film. Fawcett and Pais prefer to let direct bodily expression, along with color and sound, produce a more visceral expression of their themes.
In the next sequence an alchemist in his workshop (Kay Fi’ain) waves his gold-covered hands over the crucible in which he transforms base metals into gold, male into female. There is a suggestion that his experiments are producing the film’s events, and the narrative does have an alchemical quality: probing into the underlying energies which produce our deepest fears and desires.
Much of the film follows a family that lives in a dilapidated old house. The costumes, props, and furniture indicate the period of the 1930s. The characters, when they move at all, move in extremely deliberate slow motion, as if enacting a ritual. (The effect, filled with repressed emotion, is similar to the use of slow motion in the theater of Robert Wilson or Jack Smith.) The grandfather puts on his hat with infinite slowness before switching on the radio. The uncle languorously caresses the daughter. The daughter reaches for her mother’s hand, but the mother coldly withholds it. We feel that these gestures are emblematic of the relationships built up over a lifetime. All the actors deliver remarkably concentrated and forceful performances. The wordlessness of the drama heightens the sense that the primal tensions within the family are being distilled into their purely physical essence. The effect is alchemical, indeed.
The house is full of secrets. In one room, the daughter seeks comfort from her grandmother’s ghost, who brushes her hair. A corpse with blue feet emerges from a doorway. The mother (the powerful Carina de Matos), in a cathartic dance in a hallway, suffers from her repressed fears and desires. The lack of speech only heightens the sense of repression.
Later, the mother throws herself at a handsome Inspector, who has evidently come to inspect the family’s crimes. Her husband is a useless poet and a dreamer, who distractedly eats a rose from a bouquet on the dinner table, and she clearly prefers the competent, worldly Inspector. She tries to seduce him (to the strains of Donizetti’s Una Furtiva Lagrima), but unfortunately he seems to be interested only in grooming his mustache.
The sequences depicting the Adam and Eve figures and the Cain and Abel figures have no direct connection to the family group, at first. If one views the film as a series of visions produced by the Alchemist, you could say that these biblical figures represent the origins of Desire and Guilt, which later will generate the conflicts between the family members. Adam and Eve are seen in wedding clothes, in a dance duet in which they ravenously try to possess each other, protect each other, and also escape from each other. Their overwhelming desire for each other leads directly to the discovery of the terror of having someone try to own you. They may or may not literally be the First Couple, but doesn’t everyone make this kind of discovery in their first relationships? In another sequence, the couple caress each other, and mysterious black hands of strangers are simultaneously caressing both of them. They are discovering the disconcerting possibility of feeling desire for others as well as for each other.
Many scenes in the film, such as the ones with the naked couple, are lit only by a swaying floodlight which continually explores the figures as they explore each other. This kind of lighting represents no literal source of light in the scene but heightens the sense of sensual exploration. It could depict the probing mind of the alchemist, examining his visions for clues to the underlying reality. The film uses this kind of expressionistic lighting and sound throughout, highlighting the images as a series of poetic metaphors, rather than as literal events.
The sound effects, such as a ticking clock, are always out of sync with the images, calling attention to the sounds as poetic signifiers. The sound mix of the ticking clock, low moaning winds and breathing creates an atmosphere of strained, suspended anxiety. The musical score, an ensemble of strings, percussion and voices, sounds at times like music from the Japanese Noh drama, at times like a haunted folk score in the manner of a Parajanov film, at times like the extended vocal theater of Meredith Monk. Created collectively under the careful direction of the filmmakers, the music serves at all points to heighten the underlying emotional rhythm of the images.
As the story unfolds, the family drama deepens into questions of murder, guilt, redemption, and exile. Without resorting to Freudian clichés, The Kingdom of Shadows reveals the mythic underpinnings of family dynamics, the push and pull of love offered and withdrawn between parent and child, brother and brother. The filmmakers beautifully orchestrate the flow of dance sequences, music, evocative visual design, and ambient sound, and these elements all work together to create a kind of feverish dream in which a family’s history is alchemically analyzed down to its roots in our founding myths. The filmmakers succeed in forming the actors into a unified ensemble, with a full, physical commitment to embodying the story. Together with their complete command of the visual and sound elements of film, this mastery gives them an eloquent way to tell their story which transcends the need for words.