'Just Like Our Parents' ('Como Nossos Pais'): Film Review | Berlin 2017

Como Nossos Pais_Just Like Our Parents_Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Berlinale
Portrait of a Struggling Lady.

Brazilian director Lais Bodanzky's family drama stars Maria Ribeiro ('Elite Squad') as a woman caught between her mother and her daughters.

Rosa, the 37-year-old protagonist of Brazilian drama Just Like Our Parents (Como Nossos Pais), is caught between her aging mother, who has just revealed a secret that has thrown her daughter’s whole existence into disarray, and her life at home with her oft-absent and potentially cheating husband and two preteen daughters. Expected to simultaneously be daughter, mother and wife to her family members, and general caretaker of everyone and everything, Rosa struggles to find any time for herself and to figure out what she really thinks and wants.

In many ways, this character-driven portrait of woman from writer-director Lais Bodanzky (Brainstorm, The Ballroom) feels thoroughly contemporary, so there’s a kind of poetic irony in her use of Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House as a leitmotif, casting her Rosa as a 21st century Nora and thus suggesting that nothing much has changed for women in the almost 140 years since the play first premiered. Though the film is sometimes a bit too on the nose in terms of its references, this is nonetheless an impressive work, further elevated by a finely chiseled performance from actress Maria Ribeiro (Elite Squad). Beyond home turf, this Berlin Panorama title should appeal to festivals and niche distributors.

Speaking of on the nose: Just Like Our Parents opens with a shot of a gigantic earthenware pot on a stove in the foreground and a woman then taking it off the stove to carry it to the table, outside, where her extended family is gathered for lunch. This woman turns out to be the middle-aged chain smoker, Clarice (Clarisse Abujamra), who has made a fish stew from an old family recipe to honor the return of her son-in-law, Dado (Paulo Vilhena), who works with native tribes in the Amazon. Dado is the husband of Rosa (Ribeira), and the couple’s two little daughters (Sophia Valverde, Annalara Prates) are also present for the lunch in Clarice’s small green garden somewhere in Sao Paulo, as is Rosa’s brother, Cacau (Cazé Peçanha), and his partner (Gabrielle Lopez).

From this first scene, it’s clear that Clarice and Rosa aren’t exactly on great terms, with Clarice wondering out loud why Rosa wants Dado to be home to look after the girls when he’s doing such important and idealistic work for not two spoiled girls but the whole country. To make matters worse, not much later she drops a bombshell: Rosa’s father isn’t Homero (Jorge Mautner), Clarice’s ex-husband, but rather some random Brazilian she once met when she visited Cuba. The revelation sends Rosa into a psychological tailspin, making it clear to her why her mother treated her so differently from her brother for all these years (“I always thought it was because I was a girl,” she confesses). But it also starts a very important process of critical self-evaluation that she didn’t really have time for until then because of her crazy day-to-day schedule, juggling her constant family responsibilities (more intense because of Dado’s frequent absences) and her dead-end job as a copywriter of bathroom-fixture manuals when she really wants to be writing plays.

Bodanzky, who co-wrote the screenplay with her partner, screenwriter Luiz Bolognesi (Bird Watchers), manages to set up Rosa’s world and dilemmas quickly and convincingly. Though the film is first and foremost a character drama concerned with the protagonist’s evolving sense of self, the beauty of the screenplay is that her evolution comes about because of specific plot points that push her character development forward. The discovery of her real parentage is of course the starting point but her repeated encounters with the handsome married father (Felipe Rocha) of one of her girls’ classmates, who lends her a sympathetic ear and gives her the sensible advice that Dado doesn’t, is just as important. And the way in which the film contrasts their developing relationship with Rosa’s nagging suspicion that Dado might be seeing someone else is unexpected and delicately observed — except when Bodanzky uses an editing sleight-of-hand to drive home a particular point about how something positive in one relationship can influence other relationships as well.

There are perhaps a few too many loose ends for the film to be fully satisfying as a stand-alone narrative, including the subplots involving her brother Cacau and the one involving Homero, the man Rosa thought was her father for almost 40 years. But this also makes the story more lifelike and real, as life doesn’t always neatly offer closure for everything, either. That said, there is something odd about the explicit references to Ibsen and Rosa’s mentions of the feminist struggle and the position of women in today’s world, which all seem to suggest that her journey is but a small part of an ongoing process of self-realization and self-determination of women across generations. But quite a few female characters in the film seem to contradict this idea, as both Rosa’s mother and her much younger, lesbian half-sister (Antontia Baudouin), are portrayed as strong and independent women who seem to have it together. Since they don’t have all that many scenes, it’s hard to understand whether they are more complex than they might at first appear or whether they are simply exempt from the struggles of the Noras and Rosas of this world.

Ribeiro knows she has a rich and complex part to sink her teeth into and her Rosa is equal parts fierce intelligence and uncertainty, completely relatable and at the same time clearly a specific individual. She's particularly good in an expertly written and performed sequence of scenes in faraway Brasilia, where (spoiler alert!) she has gone to meet her real father. Opposite her, Vilhena strikes just the right balance as Dado, who is a bit of a chauvinist and whose behavior isn't always exemplary but who can be a loving father and partner nonetheless, while Abujamra relishes her part as Clarice, a woman toward the end of her life who has decided she needs to simply always say what she really thinks (and she's not immune to thinking very contradictory things). The supporting cast is solid.

Spanish DP Pedro J. Marquez gives everything a luminous and airy quality that is reminiscent of recent Brazilian family drama The Second Mother, which production company Gullane also produced. The film's title is a reference to a 1970s song composed by Brazilian singer-composer Antonio Carlos Belchior, which Clarice plays on the piano at one point.

Production companies: Gullane, Buriti Filmes, Globo Filmes
Cast: Maria Ribeiro, Clarisse Abujamra, Paulo Vilhena, Felipe Rocha, Jorge Mautner, Herson Capri, Sophia Valverde, Annalara Prates, Cazé Peçanha, Gabrielle Lopez, Antonia Baudouin
Director: Lais Bodanzky
Screenplay: Lais Bodanzky, Luiz Bolognesi
Producers: Caio Gullane, Debora Ivanov, Fabiano Gullanio, Lais Bodanzky, Luiz Bolognesi
Executive producers: Caio Gullane, Rodrigo Castellar
Director of photography: Pedro J. Marquez
Production designer: Rita Faustini
Costume designer: Cassio Brasil
Editor: Rodrigo Menecucci
Music: Antonio Pinto
Casting: Alessandra Tosi
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama)

Sales: Wild Bunch

No rating, 102 minutes