Telling the story of Brazil’s ongoing money laundering and bribery scandal through the eyes of a rich family’s housekeeper is a capital idea that never fulfills its promise in director Sandra Kogut’s “Three Summers.” Brazilian actress and comedienne Regina Casé plays the housekeeper tasked with keeping the lights on at the summer condo of her one-percenter boss after he’s arrested for his part in a real-deal criminal investigation known as Operation Car Wash.
Casé looks the part of a workaday stand-in for millions of low-income Brazilians who toil away for scraps while the rich skirt the law to become richer. But she’s let down by a flabby and barely involving screenplay that misses too many opportunities to resonate in a meaningful way with the working class. Its prestigious slot in the Contemporary World Cinema program at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival notwithstanding, “Three Summers” is strictly a local affair not nearly galvanizing enough to rile up audiences in the too many other countries where such financial chicanery routinely occurs.
The story unfolds over three consecutive summers (in the southern hemisphere, where the season begins in December). First up is 2015, and Madá (Casé) is once again running point on the big-deal family shindig for wealthy Edgar (Otávio Müller) and his wife Marta (Gisele Fróes). Their vacation condo is filled with show-offy furniture including a vase that “a lifetime of [Madá’s] salary wouldn’t pay for.” Madá is the loquacious den mother of the house staff, barking orders in loving, if long-winded, fashion while also indulging her talent for making odd dishes like sausage sushi.
Key to positioning Madá as representative of the striving Brazilian underclass is her dream of opening a roadside kiosk where she’d sell bananas and pork loin. Purchasing a modest parcel of land for her kiosk is dependent upon Edgar. During their closed-door negotiations Edgar agrees to give her the money while also showing a nefarious interest in acquiring her out-of-date, pre-paid cell phone.
Skipping to 2016, the family party is canceled now that Edgar is in legal hot water, leaving Madá and the staff to finally sip from the same fancy stemware she traditionally handed to his guests. Later, Madá is shocked to see the authorities search the condo and cart her away on a bench warrant. Kogut’s direction is so wobbly when steering the performance of a comedienne into dramatic waters that when Madá frantically points out that she technically hasn’t been arrested, we question if the director’s intent was serious or if it was just a joke that didn’t land.
Kogut and co-screenwriter Iana Cossoy Paro’s talky script rarely comes into focus while the loose reigns of editors Sergio Mekler and Luisa Marques slow things down to a crawl. This becomes acute during an endless video shoot at the house whose purpose, when finally revealed, is to allow Madá to give a show-stopping, and quite moving, admission about her family history involving a very Brazilian type of tragedy. But if Kogut is asking us to believe that Madá has buried certain parts of her past under the plush furnishings of a rich family while talking as fast as she can to keep her demons at bay, we don’t buy it. She’s the same blabbering housekeeper at the end as she was at the beginning. So we’re left with a tiresome main character with no wisdom to impart, giving the aggrieved, laboring-class viewer no one through which they can process their anger.
The closest we get to real pathos are the effective moments with Edgar’s father, Lira. (Rogério Fróes). First seen as a doddering old man who stubbornly stays in his room during the 2015 party, he soon emerges as the film’s tragic figure. He wonders how badly he failed as a father when the sick boy he read to every night when he was stricken with hepatitis grew up to swindle money from schools and hospitals. Eventually, Lira and Madá become a bit of a team and with staff salaries not being paid, Lira suggests they rent the house on Airbnb or as Madá calls it, in one of Kogut’s strained attempts at making Medá seem adorably out of touch, “Harrybnb.”
Kogut herself is Brazilian-born so it’s doubly disappointing that “Three Summers” doesn’t include more pointed, homegrown commentary like the terrific scene where Madá gives a guided boat tour pointing out all the homes that have been confiscated from owners under arrest (“If it’s well-kept and functioning, it’s a foreigner”, she says). Otherwise, Brazilian audiences must keep waiting for the film they deserve, a cathartic reaching-out to the forgotten victims of high-profile, white-collar crimes, the ones who want nothing more out of life than a roadside kiosk to sell bananas.