Shadow of the Cat

Shadow of the Cat (La Sombra del Gato) (2021)

Shadow of the Cat (La Sombra del Gato) first published by

José María Cicala’s Shadow of the Cat (La Sombra del Gato) begins with teenaged  Emma (Maite Lanata) going nowhere fast. She may be pushing hard on the pedals, and the way her auburn locks are flying through the air may be suggestive of motion – but in fact she is on an exercise bike, rooted to the spot, outside the remote farmhouse which she has never left since arriving as a baby. There her constant companions are her father Oscar ‘Cat’ Madison (Guillermo Zapata), his friend and guard Shadow (Danny Trejo), the old cook Ana (Rita Cortese) and the ‘native warrior’ Kamina (Griselda Sánchez) – but wide-eyed, free-spirited, imaginative Emma is boundlessly curious about her own origins and the world beyond the farm. When she secures a smartphone and puts a video of herself and her father online, she discovers that, contrary to what she has been told by Cat, her mother Celia Kroll (Mónica Antonópoulos) is still very much alive – and so Emma runs away in search of her more monied roots, with Cat and Shadow on her tail and facing up to a past they had long since left behind. 

Shadow of the Cat is a tale of two extended families. The one lives out in the country, and is warm and loving, the other lives in a giant, luxuriously appointed mansion, and is formal and cold – and for all their differences of class, both, in their way, engage in equally strange ritual practices. As Cat and Shadow and a troupe of dancing transvestites that the two men meet in their hotel all try to retrieve Emma from her new home, the cultic, toxic nature of the Kroll dynasty becomes ever more apparent. Here it gets ever more difficult to get a grip on time and place, as the film’s locations shift into the oneiric and the downright surreal. In one of Emma’s escapades, for example, a crawl space is made to accommodate a restaging of the trash compactor scene from Star Wars (1977) and of the snake pit sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), before opening out to a snowy wasteland that is all at once outdoors and indoors. And so what at first seems a relatively simple scenario becomes ever more hallucinatory, so that by the end the viewer will be left unsure where they are and who (or indeed what) is real.

Towards the end of Shadow of the Cat, one character (curiously speaking in the voice of another) is heard to say: “What’s the use of explaining what happened? Crazy acts can’t be explained.” It is both a fair summation of the film’s plot, and also something of a problem. When a film shrugs at the viewer, the viewer tends to shrug back – and while Emma and Cat and Shadow all start off as engaging characters who easily win our attention and our sympathy, by the finish their experiences have become so incoherent as also to seem weightless and inconsequential. Ultimately, we are left to feel like Emma in the opening scene: over-exerted while under-rewarded, with a lot of energy spent but no real progress made.

strap: In José María Cicala’s tale of two families, an adolescent girl returns to her long lost mother’s clan, only to find cult and confusion

Anton Bitel