Paris-based sales company Luxbox has acquired world sales rights to “Toll,” an involved, discomforting social drama that marks the highly-anticipated feature film debut of Brazilian-based writer-director Carolina Markowicz, hailed especially for her short “The Orphan,” which won Cannes 2018 Queer Palm.
Produced by Karen Castanho at Brazil’s Biônica Filmes – and part of its remarkably broad slate of more mainstream propositions and new voices – as well as Luis Urbano at Portugal’s O Som e a Fúria, and now in pre-production, “Toll” will be brought onto the international market by Luxbox at the Cannes Marché du Film Online, which runs June 22-26.
Told with dashes of sly humor, and a large emotional empathy that allows audiences to sense the protagonist’s gathering pain, in “The Orphan” Jonathas is an extrovert black gay teen orphan who tints his hair yellow, loves lipstick and imagines himself in a negligee posing to opera music. One day, he’s adopted by Raul and Carla. They’re rich, have a pool:Raul’s half Texan, has some sort of connection with Donald Trump.
But Jonathas doesn’t fit their idea of a son. Though black and penniless, he doesn’t dream of becoming a soccer player, but yes, of being a cheerleader (with which the film cuts to Jonathas’ private fantasy of him dressed on a glitter strewn spangled shirt.)
Jonathan speaks his own mind, too, asking at a first dinner which one of them can’t have children. Jonathan’s been adopted before but always returned to the orphanage.
His fate is that of Brazil’s majority black population and its gay community – who are rejected, sometimes grotesquely, by Brazil’s rich elite. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro went as far as to say that if he had a gay son, he’d wish him dead.
Shot with fluid use of an Alexa which moves quickly into camera close-up, turning “The Orphan” into a character-driven gift for actors, “The Orphan” was acquired by FiGa Films, and sold to Canal Plus in France, screened at Toronto, Locarno, the AFI and SXSW in 2019, where it won a Special Jury Recognition, and at the Miami Film Festival, where it took best short film, among 40 awards to date.
Meanwhile, Markowicz has been courted assiduously to attend high-flyers’ development courses, whether the TIFF Talent Lab, whose mentors were Wim Wenders and Jim Stark, or the Locarno Filmmakers Academy.
She was one of the five international directors invited to form part of the 2019 Factory edition, at which she co-wrote and co-directed short film “Spit,” which opened Cannes Directors’ Fortnight in 2019.
Markowicz looks to be bringing to “Toll” the same large and discomforting sensibility and downbeat social context which set “The Orphan” apart.
Set in industrial hub Cubatão, “Toll” turns on Suellen, in her 40s, who works as a toll booth attendant, and has a son, Tiquinho, from a past relationship, who is 17 and clearly gay. “Mother and son love each other, but they have huge differences: She can’t accept Tiquinho the way he is,” the synopsis says.
Suellen dreams of hiring a Latin preacher specialized in “gay cure and soul improvement.” But the only way she can think of doing so is to fall in with a gang of thieves known to her dodgy boyfriend who steal watches from people driving to the coast.
“There are obvious facts you cannot escape and working with Carolina Markowicz is one of them for us,” said Luxbox heads Fiorella Moretti and Hédi Zardi, saying they were “dazzled and delighted by ‘The Orphan.’”
“Carolina describes all these unexpected events that helped you to become yourself. It reminds you that you can remain vulnerable but in life there is no real safety save for self-belief,” they added, noting that “inner resistance in each one of her characters makes them stronger and more true to themselves. All her poetry takes on a special meaning in the current political context in Brazil and makes her body of work more than ever essential, here and everywhere.”
Castanbo was “enchanted” by “The Orphan’s” tone, “the way she portrays a sad situation with highly acid humor that breaks the ice and catches the audience, making them put themselves in others’ shoes.”
“The Orphan” and “Toll” present some similarities, she argued. “Both portray gay characters that feel comfortable with their sexuality but are rejected by some part of society, especially by people who love them. Characters such as Jonathas (“The Orphan”), Tiquinho (“Toll”) and the Divas (“Divine Divas”) reinforce the beauty of being who you truly are, no matter what.”
She added: “We believe ‘Toll’ is an urgent film, and we will do our best to help Carolina make a masterpiece that can be pertinent and important nowadays.”
“For me, Carolina Markowicz is one of the most promising of film directors!” said Urbano. “‘Toll,’ her first feature, is a social drama taking place in a mid-sized Brazilian industrial hub which is a highly-polluted city, and is subtly toned by glimpses of dark humor. It promises to be great movie.”