A chaotic class dramedy where the help and the helped wind up switching places, Three Summers (Três Verões) marks another occasion for Brazilian actress Regina Casé (The Second Mother) to shine in the role of a housekeeper trying to overcome stiff social barriers and find her own slice of happiness. Set in one location over a trio of Christmas holidays (which, in Brazil, take place during the summer), this cleverly written and staged, if sometimes unruly, new feature from writer-director Sandra Kogut (Campo Grande) could see wider exposure after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Plunging us straight into the action in December of 2015, Kogut introduces us to Madelena, aka Madá (Casé), the maid-in-charge of a sprawling vacation condo belonging to a rich Rio family who settles down there each holiday. Although the long-married couple of Edgar (Otávio Müller) and Marta (Gisele Fróes) own the place, Madá seems to be the real boss, directing the other servants and taking care of Edgar’s father, Lira (Rogério Fróes), who stays in one of the guest rooms.
With Ivo Lopus Araújo’s handheld camera frenetically following Madá as she oversees the family’s Christmas party, we watch the housekeeper boisterously deal with a number of near-disasters while also trying to purchase a tract of land so she can set up her own roadside concession stand. Played infectiously by Casé, Madá is at once quick-lipped, stubborn and eager to please, making the best out of a situation that has her cleaning up everyone’s mess, yet doing it with a sly smile.
Cut to one year later. Rain has ruined the holidays, but that’s not the only thing gone wrong: Edgar and Marta have disappeared, and a little while later the police show up with a warrant to search the house. As it turns out, Madá’s boss has been fingered in a corruption investigation — part of the wide-reaching Operation Car Wash that took Brazil by storm starting in 2014, resulting in billions in seized property and hundreds of arrests, including that of former President Lula de Silva.
And yet again, Madá won’t let this latest catastrophe stop her from getting ahead. She may be without a job or salary, and her boss may be in jail, but she’ll somehow make it work. Soon enough, she and the other servants are popping open champagne, partying by the pool and trying to sell off the owners’ belongings in a yard sale. And Madá won’t even stop at that, eventually turning part of the condo into an Airbnb.
Kogut, who co-wrote the script with Iana Cossoy, displays a keen eye for satirizing Brazil’s rigid class structures and how people like Madá try to find their own piece of the pie within them. Indeed, not only does the housekeeper have a good time with her fellow servants — the behind-the-scenes jocularity is reminiscent of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game — but she has no qualms asking her bosses to fund her new business venture. And when the latter get caught up in the scandal, she turns that to her advantage as well, using their yacht to offer sightseeing tours of confiscated homes.
The film is cleverly structured, asking the viewer to fill in the wide gaps between each narrative ellipsis, as if we’re watching a TV series where half the episodes have been cut out. Sometimes that can be confusing, such as in the third part (set in 2017), which begins with an infomercial shoot taking place in the house and goes on for a little too long. But even that sequence eventually finds meaning when Madá appears before the camera and we dig deep into her past, revealing a dark side behind her cheery façade.
Casé was a famous television star in Brazil before breaking out internationally with Anna Muylaert’s 2015 drama The Second Mother, in which she played a housekeeper trying to reconnect with her estranged daughter. In Three Summers, her performance is much more unhinged, as if Madá were a stand-up comic stuck in the role of a domestic manager, obliged to deal with the Christmas tree decorations and caterers. But looks can be deceiving: Madá may be a servant, but she’s ultimately the one being served.
Production companies: Republica Pureza Filmes, Gloria Films Production
Cast: Regina Casé, Rogério Fróes, Otávio Müller, Gisele Fróes, Carla Ribas, Daniel Rangel, Jessica Ellen
Director: Sandra Kogut
Screenwriters: Sandra Kogut, Iana Cossoy
Producers: Marcello Ludwig Maia, Laurent Lavolé
Executive producer: Marcello Ludwig Maia
Director of photography: Ivo Lopus Araújo
Production designers: Marcos Pedroso, Thales Junqueira
Costume designer: Marina Franco
Editors: Sergio Mekler, Luisa Marques
Casting director: Marcela Altberg
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Sales: Urban Distribution International