Truth comes in multiple layers in tyro helmer Fernando Coimbra’s child abduction tale, “A Wolf at the Door.” That’s because the two main characters are slow to reveal everything, protecting themselves as long as possible before the real story is forced to the surface. Coimbra’s overambitious use of a complex narrative structure can feel clunky, and worst of all, the kid at the center is practically forgotten in the assemblage of flashbacks, significantly diminishing the emotional pull. Nevertheless, the pic gathers steam and displays considerable drive, even if it can’t quite shake the feel of a good TV movie.
Someone picked up 6-year-old Clara (Isabelle Ribas) from school, and it wasn’t her mother, Sylvia (Fabiula Nascimento), or her father, Bernardo (Milhem Cortaz). The detective (Juliano Cazarre) suggests the perp could be known to the family — perhaps Bernardo has a disgruntled lover? Reluctantly, he admits he was seeing Rosa (Leandra Leal) for about one year, even suggesting she’s the likely perp, so she’s hauled in for questioning.
Rosa initially denies any involvement, but under pressure claims to have taken the girl on instructions from someone else. Her story doesn’t really add up, and the detective (characterless) has to sift through distorted levels of perception before Rosa, as the woman scorned, finally cracks and reveals the whole chilling truth.
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Certainly in terms of plot, Coimbra has it all figured out, yet Rosa’s febrile, almost “Fatal Attraction”-style resolve to hurt Bernardo would have seemed more persuasive had he been a more compelling lover worthy of her passion. It probably doesn’t help that “Wolf at the Door” is showing up at around the same time as “Prisoners,” one of the most critically acclaimed kidnapping pics in a long time. The parents’ desperation, so disturbingly caught in that film, is all but absent here, as the director is far more interested in coming up with a reason for such a heinous crime than he is in its affect. Consequently, Sylvia is the one appealing figure, thanks in part to Nascimento’s warmth.
Visuals keep the center of attention tightly focused, hiding faces or marginalizing characters such as the detective as if they’re merely incidental to the story. Lensing by leading Brazilian d.p Lula Carvalho (“Elite Squad”) maintains a cool tension that does more to grip the emotions than the repetitive flashbacks. “A Wolf at the Door” received the top award in San Sebastian’s Latin Horizons section.