Casa Grande: Rotterdam Review

International Film Festival Rotterdam
Socially-minded, telenovela-referencing Rio de Janeiro coming-of-ager is elevated by a strong central performance.

Teen newcomer Thales Cavalcanti and small-screen veteran Marcello Novaes star in Brazilian writer-director Fellipe Barbosa's feature debut, premiering in competition at the Dutch festival.

The travails of a Rio de Janeiro 17-year-old are used as a prism to explore wider issues facing 21st-century Brazil in Casa Grande, a confident and quietly promising feature debut from director/co-writer Fellipe Barbosa. Showcasing a fine, consistently believable and sympathetic central performance from big-screen newcomer Thales Cavalcanti as the conflicted Jean, the picture premiered in competition at Rotterdam and will reap further festival bookings over the coming months--boosted by a general vogue for all things Brazilian during the summer it hosts the soccer World Cup. Domestic prospects are dicey for a film which features some recognizable faces from the world of telenovela but in terms of execution falls somewhere between arthouse and mainstream modes.

It's much less edgy and confrontational than the latest Brazilian export to make international festival waves, Kleber Mendonca Filho's Recife-set Neighboring Sounds (2012), although both films were shot by DP Pedro Sotero. The approach here is steady and conventional, Barbosa's screenplay (co-written with Karen Sztajnberg) functioning primarily as a bildungsroman profile of the thoughtful, artistically-included, hormonally-volatile Jean (Cavalcanti). He and his younger sister Nathalie live with their ostensibly successful parents Hugo (Marcello Novaes) and Sonia (Suzana Pires) in a tastefully opulent, gated villa in the Rio suburbs - the "big house" of the title.

But in Brazil the term "casa grande" has other connotations besides simply size, harking back to the sugar-plantations which provided much of the nation's wealth in previous epochs. Barbosa explicitly nods to Gilberto Freyre's classic 1933 text Casa Grande e Senzala, known in English as The Masters and the Slaves, which dealt with racial and economic divides in this supposedly 'melting-pot' culture. In the 21st century, slavery may no longer exist but Brazil's wealth disparities are notoriously stark, with issues of race seldom far from the surface.

These are dramatized here via Jean's enforced adaptation to his family's straitened economic circumstances. The father-surrogate servant who previously drove him to work (in one of the family's four autos!) is "let go," meaning Jean has to get the bus to his exclusive Catholic boys' school. Using public transport brings him into contact--and then a relationship--with Luiza (Bruna Amaya), a spirited lass who, if she isn't quite from the favela, is certainly from much lower down on the social ladder, a mixed-race beneficiary of the affirmative-action quota policies recently signed into Brazilian law.

Transitioning to features after 2007's multi-award-winning short Salt Kiss and 2011's New York-set documentary Laura, Barbosa's attempts to incorporate discussion of controversial matters as the quota-system veers towards the preachy at times. And there's something simplistic about the way he contrasts the stultifying, hypocritical, appearances-maintaining dullmess of Jean's pseudo-European family--his mother, who tutors French at her home, has given her offspring Gallic names--with the lively, forro-dancing demi-monde occupied by their sensual, salt-of-the-earth employees in their humble abodes just down the road.

Barbosa's debt to the world of telenovela is obvious, not just in casting-choices like selecting small-screen veteran Novaes as the milquetoast dad, also in its concentration on the tricky relations between masters and servants in an advanced 21st century economy. The results, however, feels more like a classy pilot for a serial than a properly distanced commentary on the form itself--a trick pulled off by Chico Teixeira in his Sao Paulo-set Alice's House (2007). Regardless of such cavils, Cavalcanti--an occasional TV performer whose considerable musical gifts the guitar-strumming Jean shares--makes for a consistently engaging and intriguing protagonist. As this Carioca cousin of Jean-Pierre Leaud's Antoine Doinel, he strikes just the right balance between confident swagger and callow insecurity, emotions constantly brewing behind a perpetual mask of foxy watchfulness.

Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Tiger Awards Competition), January 27, 2014
Production company: Migdal Films
Cast: Thales Cavalcanti, Marcello Novaes, Suzana Pires, Alice Melo, Bruna Amaya, Clarissa Pinheiro
Director: Fellipe Barbosa
Screenwriters: Fellipe Barbosa, Karen Sztajnberg
Producer: Iafa Britz
Director of photography: Pedro Sotero
Production designer: Ana Paula Cardoso
Costume designer: Gabriela Campos
Editors: Nina Galanternick, Karen Sztajnberg
Music: Patrick Laplan, Victor Camelo
Sales: Visit Films, New York
No MPAA rating, 114 minutes