The Portuguese Cristele Alves Meira presented herself in the critics’ week of the festival in Cannes with an unusual drama set in a Portuguese province. Although magical realism is primarily associated with Latin America, this feature film debutant in “Alma Viva” managed to solidly mix naturalism and authenticity with superstitions and vanities of rural communities, and in the end this film almost turned into a black comedy. We follow the story from the perspective of the eight-year-old girl Salome (played by the director’s daughter Lua Michel), who lives with her mother in France, but spends the summers in her mother’s native village in the north of Portugal. The whole extended family is there, and Salome seems to be the only child her age in the whole place.
And there is certainly something autobiographical, because the author herself is a Portuguese woman born and raised in France, who occasionally stayed with her family in Portugal during her childhood, and since she has no peers, Salome spends most of her time with her grandmother. However, the grandmother will die suddenly, and little Salome will suspect that she was poisoned with fish by a neighbor with whom she has been on bad terms for decades, since she kidnapped her husband. To make the situation worse, practically the whole place considered the grandmother to be some kind of witch, and after her death the whole family from all over the world would gather there to bury the old woman and then divide her property.
By the end, all of this will almost turn into a complete circus, and I’m a little sorry that Meira didn’t release the brakes to the end and really take the story into the waters of a hilarious black comedy along the lines of “Death at a Funeral”. Instead, she focused on slightly fantasy elements, so after the death of her grandmother, the little girl will really start to be haunted by the old woman’s spirit. Or at least that’s how it seems to us, in a film that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be a naturalistic observation, a coming-of-age, a black comedy that makes fun of those outdated rural customs and superstitions, or a family drama. This is how it came out as something in between all that, a bit sketchy and with the impression that much, much more could have been done there.