dir. José María Cicala.
Within genre cinema, many works fall neatly into various subgenres, and audience satisfaction can come from seeing the ways in which these films fulfil or subvert the tropes of these categories. There’s a particular pleasure to be gained however from films that live outside the usual generic classifications, and carve out their own unique niche. José María Cicala’s Shadow of the Cat is one such indefinable film – blending fantasy, horror, comedy and drama, it takes the viewer on a magically unpredictable quest.
Teenager Emma (Maite Lanata) lives on a remote farm with her father Gato (Guillermo Zapata) and three other adults, who together form a close if unconventional family. Their home is so cut off that Emma has never even been to the city, and although she is happy at home, her natural curiosity leads her to stow away in the van on a delivery of the farm’s produce. During her brief trip, Emma finds a smartphone, and when back home starts making video diaries which she uploads to YouTube (having found the small area of internet reception at the top of a flagpole). Through these videos Emma makes contact with the wider world, and also enables some long-lost relatives, including her mother, to find her. Feeling betrayed that her father hid this side of the family from her, she runs away to reunite with them. But this side of the family has some dark secrets, and soon Emma finds herself in a perilous situation.
The film starts off as a sweet coming of age story as Emma begins to find her independence, and these early scenes have a charming, whimsical tone. As Emma starts to discover the truth about her family, the tone though becomes darker – their ancestral mansion seeming like a gothic castle as she attempts her escape. The setting resembles a nightmarish fairytale, with Emma in the role of the imprisoned princess, and – like Alice on the other side of the looking-glass – Emma’s curiosity leads to her being lost in a bizarre world full of strange characters from which she must journey back to her old life.
Cicala populates the world of the film with eccentric and memorable characters: megalomaniacal patriarchs, mystical warriors, vaudeville performers, and even a pet chicken. Emma herself is a resourceful and likeable protagonist, with admirable curiosity and optimism. Danny Trejo gives an excellent performance as the enigmatic Sombra, who plays a key part in the rescue of Emma, whilst also becoming embroiled in a side plot involving a hotel owner and his vaudeville drag troupe.
More than just a straightforward adventure, Shadow of the Cat also addresses complicated themes of family estrangement, growing up and coming to terms with the past. Cicala explores all these through a surreal lens that is fun, fantastical, and unique – a genre-melding delight.