EmptyFiGa Films is a new distribution company specializing in films from Latin America. The company's mandate is intriguing, designed to appeal to a niche audience that is underserved in the U.S.
Unfortunately, their debut offering, "Alice's House," is too undernourished dramatically to make much of a splash. While it should earn some respectful reviews, audiences won't come away satisfied.
Director Chico Teixeira has made a number of acclaimed documentaries in Brazil. This is his first dramatic feature, and he tries to apply the same unvarnished, naturalistic style to a fictional story.
The film is set in a working-class neighborhood in Sao Paulo, mainly in the home of Alice (Carla Ribas), a manicurist who lives with her philandering husband, her aging mother, and her three sons. A number of crises explode at the same time. First, Alice learns about her husband's affair with a girl half his age. Then, Alice rekindles a romance with an old flame who turns up in the neighborhood. Her mother is gradually losing her eyesight, and her husband wants to ship her off to a nursing home.
The three sons have their own problems. The oldest son is in the army, but he moonlights as a hustler servicing older men. The middle son is a petty thief, and the youngest son is going through typical adolescent confusion.
While any one of these stories might have made for a compelling drama, or at least a juicy soap opera, Teixeira underplays everything. As a result, nothing takes on a sense of urgency. In fact, the director seems so terrified of melodrama that many of the plot points are thrown away or treated so obliquely that they barely register. While the director's rigorous approach might seem admirable to some critics, it's self-defeating because viewers are unlikely to become deeply involved in events treated so haphazardly.
The director's shooting style is also irritating. Much of the film unfolds in extreme close-ups that become maddeningly claustrophobic. While this might have been intended to suggest that the characters are trapped, we feel equally confined, longing for an opportunity to see a bit of the city beyond the four walls of the apartment. The spare approach extends to the soundtrack: There is no music in the film.
Performances are persuasive. Ribas brings a womanly dignity to her role, and the young actors who play her sons have definite magnetism. Perhaps the most affecting performance is given by Berta Zemel as Alice's mother, a woman who doesn't want to acknowledge her own infirmity. And yet the most dramatic moments seem to take place off camera. Despite all the crises brewing in this family, we never feel there's anything at stake.
Director: Chico Teixeira
Screenwriters: Chico Teixeira, Julio Pessoa, Sabina Anzuategui, Marcelo Gomes
Producers: Patrick Leblanc, Zita Carvalhosa
Director of photography: Mauro Pinheiro Jr.
Production designer: Marcos Pedroso
Costume designer: Andre Simonetti
Editor: Vania Debs
Alice: Carla Ribas
Lucas: Vinicius Zinn
Edinho: Ricardo Vilaca
Junior: Felipe Massuia
Dona Jacira: Berta Zemel
Lindomar: Zecarlos Machado
Carmen: Renata Zhaneta
Nilson: Luciano Quirino
Thais: Mariana Leighton
Vanessinha: Talita Craveiro
Running time -- 90 minutes
No MPAA rating