The Girls from Brazil
Young men of my generation were smitten with Marpassa Dawn, who (alas!) never went anywhere and, worse, turned out to be less than exotic, a dancer from Pittsburgh. Black Orpheus did not lead to much, either, and was more French anyway (or, depending on source, Portuguese or Italian). Penury and government restrictions combined to reduce Brazil's annual output to one single film, Cinema Nôvo languished, and promises of Bruno Barreto and Hector Babenco fizzled and disappeared in California. The nation, local saying has it, is a land of the future and always will be.
But wait. Co-produced with France, Central Station attracted favorable notice, and Fernando Meirelles' acclaimed, breathlessly violent City of God may not prove just an isolated sport, for Aluizio Abranches' The Three Marias/As Tres Marias is, hopefully, a sign of good things to come.
Revenge, or blood, tragedy is as anciently respectable as Homeric legend and Aeschylus' Chthonic vs. Olympian Oresteia. It has been as commonly popular as the Elizabethan genre of overblown rhetoric and plot twists which flowered with Hamlet; as folksy as the Hatfields and McCoys, as modern as Gangs of New York and Julie Taymor's Shakespeare-based Titus. Typically, there is love gone awry, followed by murder most foul; Acts II, III and IV bulge with scheming and complication, leading to raw justice in a final carnage which often envelops the avenger as well.
Similarly bare and crude, though less visually gory, director/co-producer Abranches' ninety-minute story opens in striking but barren landscape, as a man and woman converse beyond our hearing beneath a mammoth rock balanced on a slender pillar, symbolic of doom hanging over all. Starkly silhouetted, she rejects him, his attempted embrace and poor bouquet. Later flashbacks disclose that beautiful Filomena (Marieta Severo) had ended her engagement to him, Firmino (Carlos Vereza), to marry another and now, thirty years later, again rebuffs the suitor. He insists that the birth of each of her five children has been "a stab in my body."
Haunted by lust and nightmares, the twice-failed suitor commissions his sons to kill the woman's male relatives, a husband and two sons. Only one of the murders is shown, obliquely - a burning alive - and though a cut-out eye and heart are glimpsed for a second, along with a body hanged from its own entrails, the shock is more stagy than the caressing graphic slow motion of usual current film mayhem.
Strong and stoic, the widow and bereaved mother insists on grisly details (even these not voiced to the audience) and makes plans immediately. Surrounded by her three daughters, each named Maria plus different second names of Francisca (Julia Lemmertz), Rosa (Maria Luisa Mendonca) and Pia (Luiza Mariani), she instructs them not to weep, not to kill directly - "it is not your destiny" - but to find three specified savage killers to avenge them. Pale-skinned, in severe mourning black against bright colors that are muted except for blood-red, the four women are a Greek chorus of Furies, separated when the daughters' gaudy automobiles veer in different directions.
The pre-selected assassins have their idiosyncrasies: one a town policeman (Tuca Andrada) obsessed with knives, which form a motif on his metal headboard; another (Enrique Diaz) thrives on snakes even to his clothing, and will speak with a female only through an intermediary (Lazaro Ramos); the third (Wagner Moura), tattooed, scarred and amoral, is already in prison.
These menacing professionals have their oddities and weaknesses, but fate intervenes to thwart them, in the person of a visiting senator, a rabies fever and the church flip of a coin. Their wiles and bribes thwarted, the daughters are forced into action themselves. With twists out of the richness of theater, the mother and daughters' destiny, as well, is perverted, though vengeance is served and unquiet spirits will not walk the closing cemetery.
Charged with eroticism and arresting color contrasts, the film does not rely on open, unimaginative sex. Based in violence, by today's standards it does not wallow in blood. Flaunting biblical injunction such as Romans XII: 17-19, it is filled with crosses, churches, quotations from Job and an ingenious human pietŕ. Like revenge tragedy, it bogs down in the numerous soft-focus middle passages of plotting, cajoling and complication, but it does build to its fitting dénouement. With such names, the daughters are easily confused, and the eclectic soundtrack sometimes jars -- best are the semi-classical moments, and one native village chant and dance -- but with the compelling inevitability of drama, this, Abranches' second film, encoils its audience like killer Zé das Cobras' snakes.
(Released by Empire Pictures; not rated by MPAA.)