'Loveling' ('Benzinho'): Film Review | Sundance 2018
In a Brazilian comic drama premiering in Park City, a mother of four juggles daily challenges while preparing for her oldest son's departure.
The first pangs of empty nest syndrome hit the devoted, exuberant mom at the center of Loveling, a captivating portrait of the joys and aches of family life. Karine Teles brings ferocious warmth and humor to the lead role, in essence playing the opposite of her perfectionist upper-class character in The Second Mother. Without pandering to audience sympathy, she creates an exceptionally sympathetic focal point for a story that embraces the messy tenderness of life as it's lived.
With its attention to quotidian detail, the screenplay by director Gustavo Pizzi and Teles — the married duo's second feature collaboration, after 2010's Riscado — favors feeling and incident over page-turner plotting. It might seem that little "happens" over the course of the film, but Pizzi's dynamic direction brings a specific domestic world into bright, tender focus.
Teles plays Irene, who with her shop-owner husband, Klaus (a very good Otavio Muller), is raising four sons in Petropolis, near Rio de Janeiro. The youngest are 6-year-old twins (played by Teles and Pizzi's sons, Francisco and Arthur Teles Pizzi). Middle boy Rodrigo (Luan Teles, the leading lady's nephew) is seldom seen without his tuba — for which he has no carrying case, setting off a series of low-key visual gags. And teenager Fernando (Konstantinos Sarris, a first-timer with natural charm) is a talented high school athlete whose offer to play team handball professionally in Germany leaves his coach stranded midseason and feeling betrayed.
The now-or-never recruitment deal, with its tight timeline, understandably ignites Irene's anxiety. But Klaus, an entrepreneurial dreamer who runs a struggling copy-store-cum-bookshop, welcomes the financial opportunity for his son. In American terms, his family falls somewhere between working class and middle class; though they're (slowly) building a new home and they own a beach house, they're barely making ends meet and there isn't the slightest whiff of luxury about any of their properties. That's especially true of the main house, where the plumbing is temperamental and there's no money for repairs. In a wry running joke, after the front door's lock breaks, a ladder is installed outside a ground-floor window.
While Irene and Klaus haggle over the economic way forward and tackle the red tape required for Fernando's overseas trip, the communal clamor of the household is compounded by the arrival of two new members. Irene's sister, Sonia (Adriana Esteves), fleeing her abusive husband (Uruguayan actor Cesar Troncoso), moves in with her young son (Vicente Demori). On top of her endless homefront responsibilities, Irene takes on the role of mediator when her volatile brother-in-law brings his entreaties and threats to the wavering Sonia.
Just as the indefatigable Irene has no time to sit and analyze her emotions, the film doesn't parse the matter, instead letting Teles' nuanced performance, and her often wordless reactions in a series of encounters, speak volumes. It's a complex portrait: As practical-minded as Irene is, a visit to a former employer reveals a shocking tendency to romanticize tough realities — "You were a slave!" an exasperated Klaus reminds her of her job in the wealthy woman's home.
Irene's panic flares into full-bore maternal hysteria only once or twice, but it's clear every step of the way that Fernando's pending departure is stirring profound emotions in her, especially when he repeatedly, cavalierly insists that he has no intention of returning. Armed with a newly earned high school diploma, she can only begin to envision life beyond childcare.
With robust bursts of primary colors, especially in scenes of the family at the beach, Pizzi and DP Pedro Faerstein use the widescreen frame to vivacious effect, finding something lyrical even in everyday chores. The film is a valentine to working-class Brazilian culture in Petropolis (Pizzi's hometown) and the waterfront town of Araruama, as much as one to motherhood and family bonds. Amid all the structural disintegration and emotional upheaval in the family home, the contributions of designers Dina Salem Levy and Diana Leste signal the underlying elements of comfort, connection and resilience. Loveling wisely avoids easy answers, and its deft mix of humor and melancholy never falters.
Production companies: Bubbles Project, Baleia Filmes, TvZero, Mutante Cine, Canal Brasil, Telecine
Cast: Karine Teles, Otavio Müller, Adriana Esteves, Konstantinos Sarris, Cesar Troncoso, Luan Teles, Vicente Demori, Arthur Teles Pizzi, Francisco Teles Pizzi, Pablo Riera, Matheus Solano, Camilo Pellegrini
Director: Gustavo Pizzi
Screenwriters: Karine Teles, Gustavo Pizzi
Producer: Tatiana Leite
Executive producers: Leo Ribeiro, Tatiana Leite, Rodrigo Letier
Director of photography: Pedro Faerstein
Art director: Dina Salem Levy
Costume designer: Diana Leste
Editor: Livia Serpa
Composers: Daniel Roland, Maximiliano Silveira, Pedro Sa
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Sales: New Europe Film Sales