TIFF 2016. Shadow Shorts. Review of “Arcana” by Jerónimo Rocha

Jerónimo Rocha’s seventh short, “Arcana”, is an eerie and exquisitely made horror short that premiered last year at the MOTELx Lisbon International Horror Film Festival before going on to have a successful life on the short fest circuit and screening in the “Shadow Shorts” competition program at this year’s Transilvania International Film Festival.

Jerónimo Rocha is already a name associated with the aforementioned section where his short “Dédalo” vied for the Best Short prize in 2014. As his opus testifies so far, Rocha is a fan of the horror genre and it is more than evident in “Arcana”, a brilliant short about a heretic locked in a humid medieval dungeon, where she is left to her thoughts as she sits in a ceremonial circle, preparing to conjure a witchcraft in order to escape.

Born out of a promotional spot for the 9th edition of the MOTELx Lisbon International Horror Film Festival and inspired by the legend of the “Lady with the Cloven Foot” as well as short stories and tales from popular Portuguese witchcraft, “Arcana” is a deftly crafted horror reminiscent of classic horror films such as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, a clear cinematic inspiration here. However, the horror in “Arcana” is conjured by its observation of its subject, the Dame, but also by its visuals and the dense and dark atmosphere rather than by the increase of the dread with music. Indeed, no words are spoken here and the heretic’s actions are enough to carry Ribeiro Rocha’s short. This atmosphere is successfully conveyed by the look of the witch, masterfully achieved thanks to the make-up, courtesy of João Rapaz who deservedly won the Best Make-up Effects Award at the Festival Caminhos Cinema Português. She is a devilish creature, much like the one from “The Exorcist”, with scabrous features, a hellish smirk and very frightening and piercing pupils. We have to add to that, the stunning practical visual effects by João Rapaz’s Oldskull FX team (Luís Monteiro and Jorge Amor), DoP João Lança Morais’ close-ups and crisp lensing that plays with light and darkness and last but not least, Isabel Carmona’s fine costume design. The art coherence in “Arcana” plays like a dark and dreadful symphony of evil that makes us uncomfortable from the very start and yet has us stuck to the screen until the very end, almost able to feel and smell the darkness, the dirt, the cold and the blood (among many other unpleasant things) in the damp, obscure and suffocating environment of the dungeon.

As previously mentioned, Ribeiro Rocha plays here with the story of the Lady with the Cloven Foot, a tale of a man who discovered that his wife was a witch and spied on her as she prepared a magical mud so she could levitate and fly to meet her peers in the coven. She spread the mud on her wrists and shoulders while reciting the mantra “Por cima das silvas, por baixo das olivas” (“Over the woodland, under the olive trees.”) over and over again. In Alexandre Herculano’s retelling of the legend, there is a moment in the story where the Lady morphs into some sort of devil and disappears, taking her baby daughter with her. She reappears years later, but her daughter is never seen again. In “Arcana”, Ribeiro Rocha invents a moment between her disappearance and reappearance, during which she was captured and put in a dungeon.

As far as the acting is concerned, Iris Cayatte who portrays the Dame (a.k.a the witch or the heretic – as you please) perfectly embodies the terrifying creature and delivers an outstanding performance all the while perfectly melting into the disgusting surrounding she is confined to.

“Arcana” is a highly unsettling and polished visual masterpiece that leaves us wanting to know more of the Dame… What will she do next? We will just have to keep guessing… But, it was surely a disgusting pleasure to watch her plot her escape. A highly recommended repugnant watching experience!



Production: Take It Easy Film (Portugal 2015)

Producer: Federico Serra

Director: Jerónimo Ribeiro Rocha

Screenplay: Jerónimo Ribeiro Rocha

Photography: João Lança Morais

Costume design: Isabel Carmona

Editing: João Canadinhas

Cast: Íris Cayatte (the Dame)

Color – 11 min.

Premiere: 08/09/2016 (MOTELx Lisbon International Horror Film Festival)

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