Shaking off her flimsy Eurobabe persona from “Pulp Fiction,” Portuguese thesp Maria de Medeiros hauntingly plays a doomed waif bearing passive witness to her family’sslow dissolution and her own destruction in “Two Brothers, My Sister.” Sophomore feature by Teresa Villaverde balances stylishness with sobriety as it stealthily drums up a wrenching crescendo of despair. Though wide arthouse exposure may remain elusive, this elegantly constructed drama should make a considerable mark via festival and quality TV showings outside the U.S.
Villaverde eases straight into the anguished heart of her story, with a series of extended glimpses showing the crumbling process already well under way. The family’s fragile figureheads are a blind, often drunkenly violent father (Fernando Reis Jr.) and his deeply unhappy wife (Olimpia Carlisi). Pushed into motherhood too young, she shrugs off the running of the house onto introspective, pathetically self-effacing Maria (Medeiros), who cooks, cleans, studies and holds down a job.
Violence erupts when Maria’s brothers retaliate against their father for brutalizing his wife. They move out, adding family go-between to Maria’s daunting duty roster. Having lost his job, the youngest brother, Mario (Marcello Urgeghe), turns despondently to an admiring older man (Luis Miguel Cintra) for support.
Without explicitly recounting her inner conflict, Villaverde and Medeiros mold Maria into a puzzling, almost self-sacrificing victim. Her love for her brothers is intensified to emotionally ambiguous extremes, traced back to the shared intimacy of their childhood.
Even a potentially liberating moment, such as a night out with her brothers, assumes a dark edge, with Maria giving herself over to a punishing sexual encounter. A glimmer of extra-familial communication with her teacher (Mireille Perrier) also fades quickly when Maria slips into her role as a dumping ground for other people’s woes.
As the drama takes an increasingly grievous turn, Maria’s precarious balance gets pushed further off-kilter. She distractedly stabs her boss while he attempts to rape her. Then she deals with her mother’s matter-of-fact suicide in a squalid rented room, alone.
Villaverde sidesteps the grim story’s plethora of melodramatic openings, instead using an imposing, finely modulated atmosphere as her driving force. She gets inside her characters’ ruptured emotional states taking mainly furtive steps, and the approach is echoed by the solid, unerringly controlled cast.
Playing an intricate character who’s crippled by solitude, Medeiros wields an intensity that so far remains untapped in her English-lingo outings. (Role won her a best actress nod at the Venice fest.) As the young brother, Urgeghe stands out in a strong supporting field.
Volker Tittel’s handsome lensing of Lisbon’s shadowy contours is persuasively in-synch with the film’s doleful nature.