Set in Costa da Caparica, Portugal, amidst the 2008 economic crisis, “Vanda” – which screened at Berlin Film Festival’s European Film Market – tells the true-to-life story of distressed hairdresser turned unlikely criminal Dulce Caroço.
Our titular character, played by Gabriella Barros (“Al Berto”), is introduced as she lies on the floor, vacant-faced, smoking a cigarette. Moments later, we see her doused in disguise, a blond wig and oversized sunglasses.
In this hour-long, crime-heist episodic, created by Patrícia Müller (“Madre Paula”) and directed by Simão Cayatte (“A Viagem”), Vanda goes from surviving to destitute in a matter of scenes. Her beauty salon seats sit largely empty. Her deadbeat husband is out of work and has used up all of her money, leaving bills unpaid and the bank breathing down her neck. Desperate to provide for her children, she resolves to turn their lives around by robbing a bank.
The EFM preview of this co-production between Legendary Television, SPi and La Panda Productions hints at further uncovering Vanda’s motives as she narrowly avoids an overzealous criminal profiler.
Led by an enigmatic Barros, the cast is rounded out with compelling performances from João Baptista (“Luz Vermelha”), Pedro Casablanc (“Isabel”), Raul Prieto (“Hierro”), Joana de Verona (“Mysteries of Lisbon”), and Isabél Zuaa (“O Complexo”).
Müller and Cayatte spoke with Variety on “Vanda,” and its underlying themes:
Is ‘Vanda’ a story of empowerment for our lead?
Müller: Definitely, yes. This is a story of a woman, a wife, a mother, a hard worker, who finds out that the life she has is a bit of a lie and everything she fought for is now over. So, she’s a victim of injustice. She’s smart, funny and brave. And, still, she’s an underdog. That makes no sense for her. She decides to take care of herself, of her children, of her hair salon, everything that matters to her. Robbing banks is her way of doing right for herself, without any moral or ethical judgement, and that’s the most fascinating aspect of this story.
Cayatte: Absolutely. Vanda is what attracted me to this project to begin with. She’s a character who’s forced to make tough decisions in the face of adversity, and the fact that she is a woman, a mother, is what makes this story so compelling. As a director, I was hooked: I had seen dozens of movies and shows about bank robbers, usually men, and their state of the art technology and getaway cars, which I love, but I certainly had never seen one about a working-class mother who’s hit rock-bottom and decides to rob a bank with a toy gun and a wig getting the money out in a supermarket plastic bag. Vanda is a badass.
Can you speak on portraying Vanda through an empathetic lens? Will we see another, less sympathetic, side of Vanda before the season wraps?
Müller: Once I had an amazing talk with Dulce, the real “Vanda.” She told me that every single time we are different from what society says we should be, we pay an enormous price. She paid her price. Vanda pays her price, she enters a new reality. In this new reality, she will make choices, some of them will destroy her emotionally but, in the end, will show her that growth implies terrible pain. I’m not sure if you can say that there’s a less sympathetic side of her, but I can say that there is a painful ride – and that is good, because it is also, and always, a brave one. She never backs down.
Cayatte: I wanted to make the story feel as emotionally and socially authentic as possible. Not only because it is inspired by real events but also because that is usually my approach: character comes first, and elements of genre appear later. It would be unfair to answer without mentioning the incredible work done by Gabriela Barros in creating a character able to evoke that kind of empathy, but also brave enough to do what she needs to without fear of how society (or the audience) will see her. I wanted Gabriela to play Vanda also because I knew she could handle that incredibly hard task of juggling drama and comedy at once. And Vanda is that kind of character. Like the stories of soldiers in the trenches — when things are looking hopeless, she will crack a joke and keep moving forward.
Economic instability, the series takes that on head-first. Why are these stories so important to relay?
Müller: Well, the 2008 financial crisis was very hard for us, here in Portugal. There was a change in people’s lifestyle, I’m not talking about millionaires. Middle-class people who worked hard and then saw everything going away. I started doing meditation then, changed my way of looking at money, peace, and happiness. When everything started collapsing, people lost their minds. With Vanda, I wanted to tell people that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Vanda is tough. She didn’t learn how to meditate, she had major issues. Money was the problem and she had to solve it. So, she did what she thought she had to do. She refused to die in her mind and in her soul. She is a survivor of a world that was falling apart, and that is why I fell in love with her. She robbed banks with a plastic gun, refusing violence and going after the institutions – and not the people.
Cayatte: In 2012 Portugal, along with Greece and other countries from the south of Europe, suffered extreme economic and financial hardship. Everyone in Portugal knows someone who was deeply affected by it, myself included. Like Vanda’s story, there were countless other stories or people doing everything in their power to survive. I feel these social stories are even more important now than before. Sure, super-heroes are fun. But these stories help us connect and remember.