Friday, August 7, 2015

A Wolf at the Door (O Lobo atrás da Porta)

A WOLF AT THE DOOR (O Lobo atrás da Porta)        B+         
Brazil  (100 mi)  2014  d:  Fernando Coimbra                        Official site

Easily the best child abduction movie of late has been Erick Zonca’s JULIA (2008), featuring a whirlwind performance by Tilda Swinton as the kidnapper, a social realist film that turns into a psychotic road movie through the American Southwest before taking a strange turn into the back alleys of seedy, gang-infested neighborhoods of Tijuana, Mexico, where the changing landscape beautifully reflects the altered mindset of her character.  Others that come to mind are Akira Kurosawa’s superbly rendered HIGH AND LOW (1963), Clint Eastwood’s MYSTIC RIVER (2003), Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone (2007), and more recently Denis Villenueve’s Prisoners (2013).  This Brazilian film is closer to the Zonca version, loosely based on events in real life, though without the brilliant use of landscapes, as what stands out is the remarkably versatile performance by the kidnapper Rosa (Leandra Leal), who starts out non-existent, but ends up narrating the final portion of the film, where she emerges as the central character.  The film is a fictionalized reimagining of an actual event that took place in 1960, where the kidnapper was Neide Maria Maia Lopes, known as “The Beast of Penha” in a case that shocked the Brazilian nation, eventually sentenced to 33 years in prison.  The incident inspired a 1965 Brazilian film, CRIME DE AMOR, various television movies, and a handful of books.  What makes this film interesting is the film noir way it is told by a first-time director, starting out as a kidnapping story, where in the opening few seconds of the film a child is missing, reportedly abducted from a school by someone she knew and felt familiar with, seemingly a friend, leading to the intervention of the police.  But instead of a police procedural where the audience tries to figure out whodunit, the kidnapper is revealed early on, yet the film continues to reveal surprises, using a flashback structure to get into the mindset and motivation behind the scenes.  Shot in Rio de Janeiro by cinematographer Lula Carvalho, the film has a gritty, social realist style, where to its credit, things slow down considerably once the featured players are identified, where the director seems to relish withholding essential information, giving out small bits of information at a time, spending much more time developing the characters and their relationship to one another.  This is an extremely effective technique, as the stunning climax is all the more shocking knowing the details. 

Sylvia (Fabíula Nascimento) thinks this is just another day and is horrified to learn that her six-year-old daughter Clarinha (Isabelle Ribas) has earlier been picked up at school by an unknown woman who claimed to be a neighbor.  In a state of shock, the police are called along with her husband Bernardo (Milhem Cortaz), who believes he knows who is responsible, confessing to the police that he’s been having an affair with a younger woman named Rosa (Leal) who he feels is trying to get back at him.  Yet when Rosa is called in for questioning, she implicates Sylvia, claiming she’s the one trying to cover up her own secret affair.  When this is proven false, Rosa offers another supposedly truer version of events, where the audience is never sure if any of this actually happened, but we’re quickly lured into a story filled with such salacious detail, initially meeting Bernardo at a train stop, where a schoolboy flirtation leads to a passionate affair where the two can’t keep their hands to themselves, resulting in a steamy sexual affair where the two are inextricably linked to one another, continuing to meet secretly over an extended period of time.  But the dynamic of their relationship changes as she demands more and more of his time, creating an anxious tension in his life, made even worse when she calls in the middle of the night when he’s in bed with his wife and he refuses to answer, drawing even more suspicion to himself when he cradles his phone near his body, not allowing Sylvia to see who it is, all but implicating himself in some scandal.  While obviously guilty of callous behavior that grows more maliciously abusive, bullying, and even devious over time, Bernardo is seen as the weak link in the film, a morally pathetic figure, where his mindset is simplistic and all too obvious, becoming easily manipulated, as his machismo attributes seem childishly self-centered and narcissistic, while Rosa’s character (and Leal’s brilliant performance) is much more psychologically complex.  Perhaps the key to understanding her interior world is seeing her at home, which is one of the strangest of all home environments, where she seems like a complete stranger, living with elderly people that never speak, who may or may not be her parents, that move around like zombies in the night, exhibiting not even a hint of emotion.  This has to reflect upon an insatiable need to get out of there, where sinking her hooks into Bernardo feels like the best pathway out.  

In the midst of a frenetic affair that takes a darker turn after Rosa learns Bernardo has lied by carefully concealing his marriage, another storyline develops that is perhaps the creepiest of all, where Rosa ingratiates herself in a friendly manner to Sylvia, making it appear completely innocent, as if she happens to live nearby, where the two often chat over coffee or while supervising Clarinha’s play activity, even to the point of bringing presents to her daughter, where she becomes identified as a surrogate aunt.  None of this is with Bernardo’s knowledge, but it’s only in this narrative that Sylvia comes to light, as she’s open, welcoming, and extremely generous, where she hasn’t a clue that the woman sitting across from her is a stalker.  Fearful that Bernardo might be getting away from her, Rosa’s tactics reveal her growing desperation, where her behavior borders on obsession.  When Rosa announces she’s pregnant, Bernardo feels like a cornered animal that will instinctively stoop to anything to escape.  Only when the cards are all on the table does it become apparent that the director’s early revelation of the kidnapper is such a masterful device, as it creates such a cleverly unique situation, with the audience clearly on the edge of their seats with each subsequent move Rosa takes endearing herself to that unsuspecting child.  Moving directly into the horror genre, Coimbra makes no false moves, using a handheld camera to capture the fluidity of the situation when Rosa actually comes to pick up Clarinha early from school, who greets her with genuine enthusiasm before taking her by the hand and dispassionately leading her to that long, ill-fated walk that seems to take forever.  It’s a calculated, cold-blooded act that shows no mercy whatsoever, yet to actress Leandra Leal’s credit, the audience clearly has more sympathy for her than the cheating husband.  Up until the last second, it was at least possible Rosa might have had something else in mind, but it was not to be.  The reasons underlying her utter hatred for Bernardo are beautifully captured in a single act of betrayal, where she is tricked into believing he needs a blood test to establish paternity, but is instead involuntarily anaesthetized at the doctor’s office where she is subject to a forced abortion, cruelly taking away her own child against her will, where in her mind, already disgusted by the power men hold over women’s bodies, there is only one equal act of retribution.  It’s a harrowing turn of events that recalls the Greek tragedy of Medea, one of the most tragic of all human dramas.    

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