New Brazilian talent Aluizio Abranches follows up his sexy arthouse sleeper, “A Glass of Rage,” with “The Three Marias,” an equally fresh and offbeat tale of vendetta in Brazil’s remote northeast. Here four revenge-bent femmes embrace the male code of violence. Though it lacks the startling sex scenes that helped broaden the audience for “Rage,” pic is dramatically far more sure-footed and has the visual appeal to open a breach offshore, where the originality of new Brazilian cinema has so far been slow to catch on. Critical support will prove key to that.
Story opens with a mysterious, unheard dialogue between a man and a woman standing under a giant rock, and without further explanation jumps to three brutally murdered men. Their disfigured corpses are pic’s only concession to gore, motivating the subsequent vendetta.
The corpses are the husband and two sons of Filomena Capodocio (stern stage thesp Marieta Severo), who calls her three adult daughters together and gives each the name of a ruthless but hard-to-hire killer. The three killers are to be hired to bring back the heads of their family’s murderers: The daughters are not to do the killing themselves, it is not their “destiny” as women.
It is as useless to argue about this reasoning as it is to question the logic of a Greek tragedy, which the mother’s dialogue deliberately recalls. In any case, the film sets up the problem of female participation in the taking of life on these terms and gets fairly good dramatic mileage out of it.
The age-old vendetta story gains from a contemporary setting as the women set off separately to carry out their missions. Maria Francisca (the earnest Julia Lemmertz) uses her feminine charms to persuade misogynist snake-eater Ze das Cobras (Henrique Diaz) to kill paterfamilias Firmino (Carlos Vereza).
Meanwhile, Maria Rosa (wild-eyed Maria Luiza Mendonca) pursues Capt. Tenorio (Tuca Andrada), an honest backwoods cop, and young Maria Pia (the hip Luiza Mariani) coolly busts the fearsome Devil’s Horse (Wagner Moura) out of jail, to dispose of Firmino’s ruthless sons.
Laid-back acting by Lemmertz, Mendonca and Mariani as the sisters leaves viewers free to draw their own philosophical conclusions, while the tragic dignity of Heitor Dhalia and Wilson Freire’s spare dialogue is never allowed to overpower the images.
The pleasing look of Brazilian neo-surrealism comes across in d.p. Marcelo Durst’s unsettling widescreen visuals. Production and costume design manage to convey an off-key atmosphere with the minimum of resources.