×

Film Review: ‘Casa grande’

Although it can turn overly didactic, Fellipe Barbosa's strongly acted debut is a well-observed study of a wealthy Brazilian family's breakdown.

With:
Marcello Novaes, Suzana Pires, Thales Cavalcanti, Clarissa Pinheiro, Bruna Amaya, Marilia Coelho, Gentil Cordeiro, Alice Melo, Christian Gazzeta. (Portuguese, French dialogue)

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.

Film Review: 'Casa grande'

Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (competing), Jan. 27, 2014. (Also in Berlin Film Festival — market; Bafici.) Running time: 113 MIN.

Production: (Brazil) A Migdal Filmes, Gamarosa, Guiza Producoes production. (International sales: Visit Films, Brooklyn.) Produced by Iafa Britz.

Crew: Directed by Fellipe Barbosa. Screenplay, Barbosa, Karen Sztajnberg. Camera (color), Pedro Sotero; editors, Sztajnberg, Nina Galanternick; music, Patrick Laplan, Victor Camelo; production designer, Ana Paula Cardoso; costume designer, Gabriela Campos; sound, Waldir Xavier, Evandro Lima.

With: Marcello Novaes, Suzana Pires, Thales Cavalcanti, Clarissa Pinheiro, Bruna Amaya, Marilia Coelho, Gentil Cordeiro, Alice Melo, Christian Gazzeta. (Portuguese, French dialogue)

More Film

  • Matt Damon and Tom McCarthy Team

    Matt Damon Teams with 'Spotlight' Director Tom McCarthy on New Film (EXCLUSIVE)

    Even as buzz grows for his upcoming race car drama “Ford v. Ferrari,” Matt Damon looks to keep the pedal to the metal: the A-lister is set to star in the Participant Media feature film “Stillwater” with Tom McCarthy directing. Damon attached himself in May, and the package was quickly acquired by Participant, who previously [...]

  • US actor Kevin Spacey (C) is

    Kevin Spacey Shouldn't Be Exonerated in Hollywood Even as Criminal Case Ends (Column)

    The news that criminal charges against Kevin Spacey in the Nantucket groping case have been dropped raises an inevitable question: does this mean he can claw his way back into Hollywood’s good graces? Or maybe more importantly: should it?  Spacey’s rapid descent was startling, even as it quickly followed that of the once untouchable producing [...]

  • Movie Ticket Subscriptions

    As MoviePass Fades, Theaters Fall In Love With Subscription Services

    MoviePass may be cratering, but movie theater subscriptions are here to stay. AMC and Cinemark already operate their own online ticketing services. And by the end of July, Regal Entertainment is expected to unveil a subscription plan for customers accustomed to getting all manner of entertainment for a monthly fee. With ticket sales down more [...]

  • This photo shows composer Hans Zimmer

    Hans Zimmer on Recreating Iconic Score: 'The Lion King' 'Brought People Together'

    Composer Hans Zimmer is seated at the mixing board at the Sony scoring stage, head bobbing to the music being performed by 107 musicians just a few yards away. He’s wearing a vintage “Lion King World Tour” T-shirt, frayed at the collar. On the giant screen behind the orchestra, two lions are bounding across the [...]

  • Lion King merchandise

    'The Lion King': Disney Targets Nostalgic Adults With High-End Merchandise

    Does Nala wear lipstick? Probably not, but “The Lion King” fans can celebrate the release of the live-action remake with a new line of makeup that’s part of a whole pride of other items themed to Disney’s live action redo. For about $40, the Can’t Wait to Be Queen eyeshadow palette by Luminess Cosmetics includes [...]

  • 'Cats' Movie Trailer: Watch Taylor Swift,

    'Cats' Trailer Drops: Watch Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson in Movie Musical

    Universal has released the first trailer for its film adaptation of the Broadway play, “Cats,” starring Taylor Swift, Jennifer Hudson and James Corden. Based on the book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T.S. Eliot, the musical follows the Jellicle cats, a family of felines who go before the group’s leader Old Deuteronomy to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content