The programme did warn me about surprises, but boy did I not expect this! Good Manners, a Brazilian film by Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra, in Official Competition at the London Film Festival, goes from comedy to horror, social, family, friendship and religious drama! Not only does the excellent small cast confidently take this story in every direction possible, but the child actors contribute enormously in grounding its abnormality. Who better than children to remind us of innocent pain and the vulnerability of life?
Clara (Isabél Zuaa) starts working in a beautiful modern apartment as a housekeeper for single expecting mother Ana (Marjorie Estiano), who is a few months pregnant. The aim is for Clara to become Ana’s son’s nanny. The two women become very close, and it soon emerges that once a month, when the moon is full, Ana sleepwalks, sometimes outside her home. She also has an unnatural taste for blood, which she either smells on Clara one night, or welcomes in her spaghetti.
Clara notices this pattern, and does everything to protect Ana. As the pregnancy progresses, Ana is in a lot of pain, and dies giving an early violent birth to a boy who she wanted to name Joel. We then skip to seven years later, when Clara is taking care of Joel (Miguel Lobo) who, once a month, needs to be locked up for fear of what he is capable of. I will not go any further than that – watch it!
I’d like to point out that this film contains the second pregnant sex scene of LFF for me so far, will I see more? It just struck me because, here as in Loveless, the camera gives the baby bump importance during the act – have you seen this on a movie screen before?
Zuaa is a calming presence, with a striking and beautiful facial structure and a caring manner. Despite Ana’s and Joel’s pain, she would never let go and never stop giving more and more love. She reminds us that you don’t need to be highly expressive to be the most loving person in the room. Estiano adds humour to scenes when she does aerobics while heavily pregnant but later becomes a tragic figure after revealing why her family have disowned her.
There is a slightly otherworldly and futuristic look to São Paulo, where the story takes place. The shopping mall, high city buildings and cleanliness seem like Oz when looking at them from the other side of the river, where Clara lives with her landlady.
The hyper modernisation of cities brings with it the topics of healthy diets, staying fit and fashionable, going vegan and perhaps overprotecting children. When Joel tells his schoolmate he can’t eat meat because of his allergies, we know this comes from Clara’s protective intentions, but I have the feeling that in everyday life, this isn’t uncommon.
There are so many ways to look at the curse that Ana passes on to her son. At the same time, you can also just enjoy this film as an unusual family story with mythological themes. Must we always blame someone for a curse? What if nature just messed up?
Good Manners will take you unawares and keep pushing further, what a nice surprise!