Fala cados, beleza?
Welcome to The Brazilian Gringo, an ongoing column about life, pop culture, politics, and history in Brazil from the perspective of a permanent resident who has lived in the country for three years and counting. If you have any suggestions for subjects you’d like to see covered in future articles, let me know in the comments!
Those who know me know my love for the erotic thriller and domestic horror genres. Long dismissed as trashy relics from the 80s and 90s, they seldom slink into the cinemas these days… unless they are arthouse hits. Some, such as The Handmaiden, Stranger by the Lake, and Swimming Pool have found critical acclaim and cult success, particularly among the ‘worldly’ cinephile community. The appeal is easy: smart, cynical, and utterly unafraid of getting their hands dirty, these films are like imported sweets with a pleasant kick. If films were food, O Lobo Atrás da Porta (A Wolf at the Door) would be a brigadeiro with a razor blade in the centre. I had the privilege of first seeing the film back in 2014 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. Once the film ended and lights came back on, I knew this film would be one I would have to revisit again and again. Few films of the 2010s have hynpotized and unsettled me quite like it.
The film opens with a missing child, last seen leaving with an unknown woman. Her parents, Bernardo (Milhem Cortaz) and Sylvia (Fabiula Nascimento), wait in panic at the local police station while the police locate the woman, Rosa (Leandra Leal). The mystery of the missing daughter largely unfolds in flashbacks and it is soon revealed Bernardo and Rosa had an affair. Fernando Coimbra, the film’s director and writer, presents their first encounter as a realistic yet endearing ‘meet cute,’ and the sex scenes that soon follow have genuine heat. Had the threat of the missing daughter no loomed over these moments, it would be easy to see the film as a refreshingly grounded indie romance. As it progresses, the cracks appear as Rosa wants a committed relationship and Bernardo wants to stay with his wife and kids. Gradually the film becomes a literal battle of the sexes as the film careens towards its brutal gut-punch of an ending.
From this very synopsis, it would be easy to call the film a Brazilian version of Fatal Attraction by way of Gone Girl. While the film owes a sizeable debt to the former and the serendipity of being released around the time when Flynn’s blockbuster novel was sweeping the world, it’s so much more than that. Its worldview is so bleak and nihilistic that it’s thrilling to just watch how extreme it’s willing to go. Many well-known crime films from Brazil focus on the favelas, drug trade, and gang violence. Coimbra isn’t interested in any of that. The film is set in Rio de Janeiro and yet its tale of lust and suburban destruction could have come from Hollywood just as easily as it could have come from Europe. It’s universal without ever feeling like it’s slavishly mimicking the landmark erotic thrillers that preceded it.
Much of the film’s strength is in its performances, particularly the career-best work from Cortaz and Leal. Leal has the showier role and brings a radiant human grace to Rosa. She captures her loving side and her monstrous fury and never does it feel like she’s playing two characters awkwardly mashed into one. She gives Rosa a certain ambiguity as if to suggest that she herself may not fully know what she’s capable of doing. As Bernardo, Cortaz (my favorite working male actor) exquisitely captures both his bullish machismo, his bright charisma, and his disarming vulnerability. Like Leal’s work as Rosa, Cortaz digs so deeply into all of Bernardo’s very human complications. He never loses sight of what makes his character both endearing and repulsive and it’s a performance that, in a fairer universe, would have merited an Oscar win.
A Wolf at the Door is one of my top ten favorite films of the decade and compared to some other choices, like the bold originality of As Boas Maneiras (Good Manners) or the lush passion of Carol, its less ostentatious appearance, especially in the global market, may seem like an odd choice. Why I think the film is a masterpiece is ultimately its ruthless efficiency and willingness to follow the story to its natural end point. Compared to many Hollywood thrillers of the same vein, there’s no last-minute cop-out into overwrought melodrama and a forced happy ending. Coimbra is too smart for that. The final shot and accompanying voiceover are haunting reminders that many people are capable of shocking cruelty, perhaps without fully realising it themselves. Thrillers are supposed to intrigue, disturb, and provoke. This little black-hearted gem does so mercilessly. Watch and feel the icy chill sink deep into your bones…