[original title: As Boas Maneiras]
The genre of Good Manners (directed by Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas) is difficult to pinpoint, and its plot difficult to describe. The film is a tragedy that falls vaguely into the area of a slow-burn horror story or a dark fairy tale. To complicate matters even further, Good Manners is an uneven film with pacing issues brought on by the fact that this 135 minute whopper consists of two halves (and, one might argue, two stories), each of which would have made a film in its own right.
The film’s story takes place in São Paolo and begins in 2010. Clara, a black Brazilian woman with no job or money, but an unfinished training as a hospital nurse under her belt, is being hired by a rich and seemingly careless young woman who is pregnant and needs someone to look after her and the baby. Mysterious incidences, such as the mother’s sleep-walking habits at full moon, start to add up and a mysterious picture emerges.
Clara feels sorry for the mother and for the child, and develops a loyalty (and later love) that will dominate and steer her life over the coming seven years. But she was way out of her depth from the start…
The first half of the film is very strong. Good acting, writing (again by Dutra and Rojas), and editing (Caetano Gotardo) means that you really buy into the complex relationship that develops between Clara and Ana; and you are especially intrigued by Ana’s back-story and family matters. It is the second half where the film seems to have a less confident stride. The length of the two parts means that you cannot really regard the first half as a mere preface to the second, and you cannot regard the second half as an epilogue to the first one either. The second part is still powerful, but you are less invested. Maybe because you know what is going to come, or maybe because part of your mind is trying to figure out what to make of this two-part structure.
Seen as a whole, the film is very much Clara’s story. But if it is Clara’s story, then it is difficult to determine what the point or message of that story is. The film certainly contains a message about motherly love, but what that message is feels less certain.
Along the way, the film hints at a number of topics – but at some only in the faintest of manners, like the hypocrisy in the Catholic church and (in a very roundabout and indirect way) the issue of abuse in the church. More overtly, the film sheds a light on a patriarchal society and its double standards and on the massive wealth gap in Brazil. Other, smaller issues that come into play are the loneliness of several characters, independent of their status; the topic of homosexuality; and consumerism.
There is also the aspect of vegetarianism and meat consumption, seen before the background of Brazilian culture which seems as much obsessed with meat as that of neighbouring Argentina.
Many of these topics are dealt with efficiently and with a light hand. But, although there are undeniably connections made in this film between the various topics – such as a hunger for luxury items, a hunger for meat, a hunger for love, a hunger for sex, etc. – you still do not know in the end if there is an overarching message to this film.
It is slightly irritating to be faced with a film that you feel very sure has social commentary in it, but then not really grasping what that social commentary actually is.
As I said, some of the topics raised are presented in an efficient and apt manner. Many other elements in the film are also really good. The acting performances, for example, are very strong, particularly by the two leads Isabél Zuaa and Marjorie Estiano. The strong performances includes that of Miguel Lobo, the young boy they cast for a role in the film’s second half. Finding able child actors can be tricky, but this film pulled it off.
The film’s score is also good, playing on the film’s fairy tale character. However, there are several scenes in which the characters start singing – which is one of the film’s most bizarre choices. Those scenes do not fit the story, nor do they fit the film’s tone. They are, by the way, so few and far between that imdb’s decision to label this film a “musical” is entirely uncalled for.
The film’s visual appearance is also strong. It is beautifully shot, with an eye for colour schemes. The film also includes one very competent animated scene. And praise should especially go to the practical effects which (with one notable exception) are very well done, and to the CG-effects which are rather good for a non-Hollywood production. The effects blend so well into each other that I am far from sure if some of the practical effects I am praising were not, in fact, CG-effects.
In spite of all its strong elements it is difficult to recommend this film as I have no idea who this film is meant for and who might enjoy it. It is too far removed from traditional horror films; and while it is a very interesting film, its 135-minute running time makes it basically impossible to tell people to “just give it a try”. I would rate the film (as a whole) at about 5.5 out of 10; and recommend that – if you are interested in the film – you do not see at the cinema, but rather wait for a home release. At home, you can easily split the two halves into two separate viewing sessions – which takes care of the long the running time, and which also enables you to “test” if you actually like the film.