After a black-and-white still of a plantation house, Walter Lima Jr’s Through the Shadow (Através da Sombra) begins with intimate close-up images of Laura (Virginia Cavendish) carefully buttoning up her clothing over the skin on her chest.
This sets the tone for a film that will come to be preoccupied with sexual repression and denial of the body. When Laura, confined to a convent since her mother died a year ago (her father is never mentioned), visits wealthy trader Afonso (Domingos Montagner) in his luxurious home, the contrast between this woman and man could not be more pronounced. Laura is primly covered up in her black dress despite the stifling heat, while Afonso, all assertive masculinity and machismo in his half-open bathrobe, is still sweating from a morning’s bout of wrestling. When he asks Laura to serve as tutor and guardian for his orphaned niece Elisa (Mel Maia) at the family’s isolated coffee plantation, his request is figured as a seduction: he takes Laura’s gloved hand and talks about his need “to have you, Laura – I mean, to count on your work, of course.” Reluctant but charmed, Laura yields.
On her steam train journey to the plantation, Laura rebuffs unwanted advances from a pair of leering male travellers – but once she has arrived, the absence of a Master is as palpable as an absence can be. “You need a man to take care of all of this,” complains strange old Argemiro as he takes her to her new home in his horse and carriage. The only men on the plantation are Argemiro and Tiago, who work the fields and rarely enter the house – but Laura also keeps seeing (and hearing) a darkly attractive man in a hat (Alexandre Varella) fixing the roof. Everything changes with the arrival of Elisa’s brother Antonio (Xande Valois), who comes with a precocious sense of his own place in the patriarchal chain, and an emergent sexuality that focuses on Laura. In this heady atmosphere, Laura becomes convinced that the former caretaker Bento (an ‘evil’ man killed a year ago in a horse-riding accident) and Laura’s predecessor as governess Isabel (who disappeared after conducting an open affair with Bento) are both back and trying to take possession of the children.
If, despite the Brazilian setting, this all sounds familiar, that is because Through the Shadow is a fairly close adaptation of Henry James’ gothic 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw – only with the addition of a considerable sexual charge that transforms James’ studied ambiguities into a hotbed of repression, projection and transference. Here, as staff furtively conduct their trysts in the storehouse, Laura is left alone in the house to sniff the Master’s clothing, to masturbate (while still clothed) in the bathtub, and to conjure a fantasy figure who, both alluring and terrifying, embodies her own sexual needs, anxieties and confusions. Her desire, long buried, will eventually find its expression in a horrifically perverse climax.
The ‘Jr’ on the end of the director’s name may suggest youth, but in fact Lima was born in 1938, and directed the first of his many features, Plantation Boy, way back in 1965. The title of that debut might equally have served here, with adolescent Antonio eventually coming into focus as the unfortunate object of Laura’s (possibly) haunted state. There is something rather old-fashioned, something classical, about the construction of Through the Shadow, which eschews voguish CGI, preferring shadowplay and in-camera trickery – and which presents its ‘ghosts’ as both fully embodied, flesh-and-bone intruders, and demonic avatars of a crumbling psyche. It is a fin de siècle film which laments patriarchy’s passing, while heralding the approach of feminist empowerment and liberation from constraint in the years to come.
© Anton Bitel