Shine a Light

'In the Shadow' and more selections from the 15th annual Cine Las Americas

Nicole Elmer
Nicole Elmer (Photo by John Anderson)

With its blood-red tides, ominously exotic seaside location, and multiple layers of feverish, sexual psychodrama, Nicole Elmer's debut feature, In the Shadow, at times feels like a Jess Franco film reimagined by Jean Rollin for a Spanish audience. In fact, it's such a multilayered piece of filmmaking that audiences may require more than a single viewing to absorb the whirlpool of madness and desire that's at the heart of the film. The sheer intensity of the story alone – a despondent American documentarian (Michelle Keffer) arrives in Puerto Rico and is immediately drawn into the phantasmagorical dream life of a local psychic healer (Jorge Sermini) with potentially dire results – makes for a uniquely disquieting experience. It's a dazzlingly sunlit nightmare, as poetic as it is disturbing. But that's exactly what Elmer and her co-writers Sermini and Jason Tremblay were aiming for.

"If you are a reader of films and a watcher of films, you have to see it more than once," says Elmer, "or you're just not going to get it. It's too much."

To be sure, In the Shadow is a film dense with thickets of subtext, references to classical fairy tales (hint: Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" is a key component to the watery proceedings), and an overall tone in which nothing is quite what it seems to be. So who (or what) influenced this director's wildly ambitious first production?

"We watched 2001: A Space Odyssey a lot," says Elmer, "primarily for the [compositions] by György Ligeti. I cut a lot of my film to his score as a temp track because his music was so textural and psychological at the same time. It can be very jarring."

In the Shadow's score by Arles Estes is, for sure, another key component to the film's quietly mounting sense of dread, combining as it does indigenous Puerto Rican themes with sudden, shocking outbursts of shrieking strings, mirroring the healer Diego's schizophrenic blessing/curse. He's literally a man on the edge – of sanity, of love, of death. You find yourself spending nearly the entire running time wondering how long it will be before the visions that rattle and shake his soul will burst forth into either acts of violence or acts of love.

"I'm also a huge fan of Ingmar Bergman," admits Elmer, "and in Cries and Whispers he used moments where he would just fill the whole screen with red, as sort of a transitional element between scenes. I used that a lot in my imagery of the water, because it's an active element on that island that you are literally surrounded by all the time. You can't get away from it and it influences your life, so using that and the color red every time Diego embraces his fears and moves on to real life was something I very much wanted to do."

One of the most bewitching aspects of In the Shadow is a peripheral character whose primary and indeed primal motivations are fluidly, languorously grounded in the azure bay upon which Diego's beloved boat is docked. As played by Elmer herself, the character seems to have swum over from Curtis Harrington's classic 1961 cinematic nocturne Night Tide. There's something fishy going on here, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, we won't explain further.

In addition to directing, co-writing, and acting in the film, Elmer also edited (with assistant editor Tag Simler). Along with the score and the uneasy-on-the-eyes Puerto Rican locations, Elmer's editing choices, which continuously mirror Diego's tumultuous mental state, are perhaps In the Shadow's most experimental and evocative aspects. Playing fast and loose with the traditional narrative framework, she cuts between the real and the unreal with a skill that belies the "first feature" fact. It's a devilish bit of behind-the-scenes manipulation, and it intentionally leaves the audience off-kilter, swimming in a sea of dark possibilities.

"I think, for all of us, one thing we learned was that because this film was so crazy and difficult, you have to be committed to it whatever the consequences may be. Or you go down the other route where you say you've got to appease the audience, put it in a genre, and get my money back. Making a film like this can really become a compromise, but for us, we were more interested in making this the way we wanted to make it and using that freedom for better or worse."

"For better," we'd say. In the Shadow's emotional undertow is as strong and vast as the ocean itself, and its riptide may be disorienting on first experiencing it, but once it drags you down, you've got no choice but to go with it, into the depths, into the shadows.

In the Shadow

Hecho en Tejas, USA
Sunday, April 29, 11am, Alamo South Lamar

The 15th annual Cine Las Americas International Film Festival kicks off Tuesday, April 24, with opening-night film ¿Alguien ha Visto a Lupita? (Have you seen Lupita?), with lead actress Dulce Maria in attendance. The festival, featuring more than 100 feature and short films from around the world, runs April 24-29, primarily at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (1120 S. Lamar). Additional screenings – free and open to the public – will be held at St. Edward's University and the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (600 River). See for full lineup and ticket info.

Also Recommended

Shine a Light

Sangue do Meu Sangue (Blood of My Blood)

New Releases, Portugal
D: João Canijo; with Rafael Morais, Rita Blanco, Anabela Moreira

If this outer-Lisbon-based story recalls the seething melodramatics of São Paulo (à la Walter Salles), it's only because director Canijo is able to plumb the head, heart, and art of both families and cities on the brink of implosion. Blanco gives an incendiary performance as Márcia, a powerful icon of fierce femininity and motherhood whose offspring are trapped in a terminal city. Her sister Ivete (Moreira) is the oppositional other, abetting Marcia's troubled son Joca (Morais), while daughter Cláudia (Cleia Almeida) mixes it up with her professor to no one's pleasure. What begins as a family drama turns into a near-literal war; the stakes are the future of Portugal, the strangely entwined hopes of two sisters, and the very notion of innocence itself. Much has been made of Canijo's Cassavetes-meets-Mike-Leigh neorealism, but Blood of My Blood stands on its own, a grim fly on a pockmarked wall, watching human lives crumble or survive in a love-and-hate mess of their own making.

Wednesday, April 25, 10pm, Alamo South Lamar
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Hombre y Tierra (Man and Earth)

Hecho en Tejas, USA
D: Christian Cisneros; with Maurice Ripke, Julian Guevara, Robert Stewart

Equal parts The Blair Witch Project, The Descent, and the National Geographic Channel's more arcane survivalist shows (with a hint of Ruggero Deodato thrown in for good measure), this Austin-based found-footager makes, above all, stunning use of the verdant Belizean countryside to creep the living daylights out of you. Wait, wait: It's actually almost all shot in Lockhart, by cinematographer Chad Brewer, in the bright, oppressively lurid light of faux-jungle sunlight, which only adds to the film's audacious scares. The plot has Colombian reality show star Mauro (Ripke) embarking on a search for a legendary Mayan ruin that ends up ... as found footage. Like its most evocative predecessors, Hombre y Tierra uses a small cast and a tight budget to its advantage. Claustrophobia and terror are merely the endgame. It's what comes before that raises the goose bumps, hackles, and all.

Saturday, April 28, 1:45pm, Alamo South Lamar
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Gordo, Calvo y Bajito (Fat, Bald, Short Man)

New Releases, Colombia
D: Carlos Osuna; with Álvaro Bayona, Julio Medina

It's been six years since Richard Linklater adapted Philip K. Dick's prescient A Scanner Darkly, by far the most disturbing animated film in a decade (not that we're knocking Pixar, but that film's tagline, "Everything is not going to be OK," was bang on). Three cheers, then, for this rotoscoped feature that posits a recognizable now and an all too human portrait of modern life from a "fat, bald, short man's" point of view. Voiced by Bayona, the titular Antonio is an adult everyman for a world in turmoil. A Bogotán notary of no import – or so it appears – Antonio is forced to confront the essence of his life when his exiting boss's new hire turns out to be a fat, bald, short man altogether too much like himself. Appearances deceive, and small lives are lived largely in this minimalist dream of everyday reality and the hopeful treasures buried within quiet cubicle subtlety.

Saturday, April 28, 4:30pm, Alamo South Lamar
Shine a Light

Baby Shower

New Releases, Chile
D: Pablo Illanes; with Ingrid Isensee, Patricia López, Claudia Burr

Screw you, Pinochet: Santiago, Chile's film scene is blowing up genrewise, and you're dead. Ernesto Díaz Espinoza (Mandrill), Nicolás López (the forthcoming Eli Roth-starring Aftershock), and now Pablo Illanes have taken your dictatorial tortures to heart and turned them into soul-saving – and frankly kickass – art. Baby Shower veers off into a whole new horror tangent, re-establishing feminist horror (and prepartem dread) in a way that nearly outdoes both The Wicker Man and Rosemary's Baby in terms of placid normalcy gone flaming crimson. Pregnant with twins, Ángela (Isensee, in a killer performance) seeks spiritual and practical guidance from a New Age-y group of hippified women in the woods. Suffice it to say it's not the best birthing plan. When Ángela's friends from Santiago show up, it's male vs. female with newborns in the balance. Tevo Díaz's dreamy, Seventies-inflected cinematography conjures misgivings almost immediately before descending into outright hell. Prophylactics: an idea whose time has come!

Sunday, April 29, 1:45pm, Alamo South Lamar

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Cine Las Americas, Nicole Elmer, In the Shadow, Jorge Sermini, Jason Tremblay, Sangue do Meu Sangue, Blood of My Blood, Hombre y Tierra, Man and Earth, Gordo, Calvo y Bajito, Fat, Bald, Short Man, Baby Shower, Pablo Illanes

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