Rotterdam 2023 Review: DALVA, Fantastically Acted Gripping Drama

Emmanuelle Nicot shows a slow healing-slash-degrooming process in this excellent film.

Editor, Europe; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
Rotterdam 2023 Review: DALVA, Fantastically Acted Gripping Drama
In Emmanuelle Nicot's debut feature film we follow a 12-year-old girl, the titular Dalva, who the authorities have forcefully taken away from her sexually abusive father Jacques. "Rescued" is what you would think, but Dalva is of another opinion, and wants nothing more than to be reunited with her father. Put in a safety shelter and surrounded by care, Dalva has to start a slow and arduous process of deprogramming herself from the years of brainwashing she received, which comes on top of the regular problems teenagers have when entering puberty. And, as her father has hidden her for years, she needs to learn anew how to deal with other kids, and even learn anew how to BE a kid.

IFFR2023-DALVA-ext1.jpgMaking a film about the subject of the sexual abuse of a minor, and the damage it does, must be a minefield. You cannot sugarcoat the subject or go for easy sentimentality, as that would seriously be a disservice to survivors. But neither can you show the kind of abuse discussed here, as it will quickly be unbelievably unwatchable at best and exploitative at worst.

Emmanuelle Nicot shows a way out: same as Hirokazu Kore-eda did with Our Little Sister, she only shows the aftermath. No flashbacks, no nightmares, no foreshadowing either. Just the harsh reality of the now, sometimes peppered with shocks, sometimes sweetened with moments of believable humanity. Even the pedophile Jacques is not pegged as a cartoonish monster here. Dalva never leaves the image. No discussions behind her back are shown. You follow her and her alone. And her growth from a young woman to a girl, strange as that sounds, is the main reason for watching this.

I want to say so much more but that would just be spoiling things, moments best discovered while watching it. Just know the film has won a shipload of awards already, and is currently a contestant for winning the audience award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (UPDATE: it won). Currently, the viewers' rating of Dalva is 4.8 out of 5, an unfathomably high score which would have easily made it the winner at any other edition of the festival.

How do you get audiences behind you like that? Well, Nicot's approach of the subject helps, but a film like Dalva would still crumble without a strong lead performance. Enter Zelda Samson, who plays Dalva, and who may just be the best child actress ever. Never not believable, she is downright chilling as a brainwashed survivor, yet so strong and resourceful that you cannot help but root for her all the way. Dalva also shows that caregivers can only do so much, but at some point the survivor needs to participate in the healing process or nothing can be done.

Dalva is the best drama I have seen in years, hands down. It tells respectfully and clearly about a difficult subject, and all pitfalls are avoided. No easy lynchmobbing, no unpalatable sensationalism. Just a fantastic lead performance, and an honest, detailed look. This film comes highly, highly recommended.



  • Emmanuelle Nicot
  • Jacques Akchoti
  • Bulle Decarpentries
  • Emmanuelle Nicot
  • Zelda Samson
  • Alexis Manenti
  • Fanta Guirassy
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Emmanuelle NicotJacques AkchotiBulle DecarpentriesZelda SamsonAlexis ManentiFanta GuirassyDrama

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