Precariously balanced social structures maintaining class, race and expectations come crashing down in “Casa grande,” Fellipe Barbosa’s well-made feature debut, which dissects a privileged family’s struggle to maintain their lifestyle in an affluent Rio neighborhood. Largely focusing on a high-school senior unaware that his father is deeply in debt, the pic is full of nicely observed vignettes that act as signifiers of caste, though at times the script turns overly didactic. With a strong ensemble cast whose interplay captures the hierarchy of master and servant, “Casa grande” should appeal to fests with an understanding of Brazilian cinema beyond the favelas.
A striking opener sees Hugo (Marcello Novaes) exiting his pool at night, entering his impressive home and shutting off the lights. He and wife Sonia (Suzana Pires) seem to have a perfect life, with son Jean (Thales Cavalcanti), daughter Nathalie (Alice Melo), plus live-in housekeeper Rita (Clarissa Pinheiro), maid Noemia (Marilia Coelho) and driver/handyman Severino (Gentil Cordeiro). Comfortable in their privileged cocoon, the family, like many of their class, culturally identify as European, with Mom and Dad shifting into French when they don’t want the kids to understand.
Hugo was a hedge-fund manager, but his company went bust and he’s been disguising the state of their finances. Jean has a good relationship with the servants, flirtatious with the inappropriately sexual Rita and filial with older Severino, so when Hugo fires the chauffeur, he tells Jean that Severino’s on vacation. Riding a bus to school each day isn’t a bad thing, since it exposes him to other people like Luiza (Bruna Amaya, a real spark of brightness), a mixed-race peer in a less fancy school, and they take a shine to each other.
Sonia begins to comprehend just how badly off they are and joins a friend as a type of upmarket Avon lady, but Hugo’s basically in denial, despite growing ostracism from friends whose money he blew. Tuition has become a problem, and with Brazil’s newly instituted affirmative-action system, Jean is concerned about his place in college.
Audiences won’t be surprised to learn that the bare bones of the story are semi-autobiographical, as Barbosa’s strength lies in how he captures the dynamics of class inside and outside the home. Jean’s informality with the hired help is natural given their role in raising him, just as it’s logical in a class-bound society for him to use Rita as an outlet for his randiness. For Hugo and Sonia, of course, the distinctions are more rigid, and empathy isn’t an emotion one exchanges freely with racially diverse servants whose personal lives are of no interest.
Not so successful are scenes in which Barbosa wants to make a direct statement, as when Luiza lectures the family’s friends about the need for quotas. Parallels will likely be made with “Neighboring Sounds,” another Brazilian film that examined social strata, but that trenchant pic succeeds via subtle buildup in making sharp statements about the country as a whole, while here Barbosa occasionally slips into the obvious when driving a point home.
D.p. Pedro Sotero also lensed “Sounds” (and collaborated with Barbosa on docu “Laura”), working here in a more formal but nevertheless accomplished vein. Sales agent Visit Films screened the pic at the EFM under the title “Casa Grande, or the Ballad of Poor Jean,” but the pedantic addition works counter to the movie’s style.