Horror, Motherhood, and Brazilian manners in As boas maneiras
In the opening scene of Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s As boas maneiras (Good Manners), the ominous score punctuates Clara’s face (Isabél Zuaa) as she rings a bell in a São Paulo luxury apartment building. A curt male voice interrogates her on her purpose. Once she specifies her destination, the doorman proceeds to rudely ask her to take the service elevator. Clara’s face frowns in displeasure. She then enters Ana’s sumptuous apartment, and into a world of fantasy and dread. Clara is there for a job interview; she becomes Ana’s maid, the nurse of her unborn baby, and eventually, Ana’s lover.
Stark racial and class differences, the horrors of motherhood, and the big city with its fabric of prejudices are all visited and reenacted in a feature that unapologetically embraces several commercial genres. Arranged as a horror film throughout, As boas maneiras (with a remarkable cinematography by Rui Poças) also comprises musical numbers, comedy, and thriller elements, an eclectic style equally present in Rojas and Dutra’s first feature film together, Trabalhar cansa (Hard Labor).
Such genre hybridization provides an alluring, dream-like quality to their films, from shorts to features, simultaneously delivering social criticism and unveiling the dark side of sacred bourgeois institutions—motherhood, productivity, private property—without visiting the obvious tropes of more conventional social and political cinema.
Ana (played by Marjorie Estiano) and Clara couldn’t be more different. Ana is white, spoiled, and rich, an extrovert, and almost comical in her superficiality; Clara is black, intelligent, inquisitive, quiet, and has been hardened by life. Their racial and class differences are apparently softened within the private sphere, but impossible to play in the realm of public spaces, in a city mutilated by gentrification. A game of fictitious equivalences is played, creating a fleeting sexual and emotional intimacy that does nothing but highlight the impossibility of their relationship and its ephemeral character, only viable because of the strange circumstances in which the two women find themselves.
There is a sense that Ana, the daughter of a rich landlord from Brazil’s interior, is clueless about almost everything—her incoming motherhood, money, emotional bonds—so Clara adds the roles of surrogate mother and lover to her already existent role as a domestic employee. Motherhood then becomes a significant and recurrent theme in the film, the very source of fear of these two young women.
Motherhood seems genuinely terrifying in Rojas’ and Dutra’s work. The White Sheet (O lençol branco) is a narrative short that chronicles Cecília’s journey waiting an entire day for a morgue official to pick up her recently deceased infant corpse. Grief, guilt, and fear, but also relief, strikes the young and apparently single mother. The film questions the images attached to motherhood and the multiple ways the female body is struck by such an institution, showing Cecília pumping her milk after the death of her baby.
Ana is also afraid in As boas maneiras. She seems to know there is something very wrong with her unborn child, but she downplays it with jokes and silly comments. She is certainly frightened when during a sonogram (with Clara at her side), the doctor informs them the baby has big eyes, a big mouth, and big feet, in an obvious reference to the ferocious wolf of children’s tales.
Maternity is also interrogated from a different side. A perennial aspect of Brazilian race relations and their representation is the trope of the mãe preta (black mammy) and its significance from the times of abolition on. The black foster mother became an emblem of devotion and subordination to the elites especially present in 1930s childhood memoirs and the visual arts and recurrently recycled in mass media through today.
Clara becomes an unconditional (black) surrogate mother for Ana, then a wet-nurse for Ana’s child, Joel, and eventually his mother. A similar trend appears in another short of the duo, the powerful Pra eu dormir tranquilo. Luís, a little boy from a petite bourgeois family, is overwhelmed by his mother’s pregnancy and the prospects of an infant taking his place. Afraid and lonely, he stares at the ceiling one night when his deceased and dark-skin nanny comes to comfort and care for him. The macabre appetites that Dora has developed are fed with Luís’s help, even if that results in the virtual disappearance of his family.
Motherhood is, thus, approached from distinctive angles by Rojas and Dutra, allowing them to display its uncanny and almost unnatural side, and at the same time, illuminating the different layers of privilege and the lack of it within the core of such an institution. The private sphere is roughly examined with all its petty and grand injustices. Relationships between the middle-class members and their domestic servants are stripped down to their core, revealing paternalism and condescension.
In Trabalhar Cansa, Helena (Helena Albergaria) grows ruthless and authoritarian towards, while also increasingly dependent on, her maid, Paula (Naloana Lima), as her neighborhood grocery store thrives. Less naïve than Ana, she is also harsh and unforgiving with her employees who live in the impoverished suburbs on the margins of the city. All the stereotypes about the popular classes—unclean, treacherous, cunning—present in Brazil’s middle-class imagination are reflected in Helena’s demeanor. Humiliating her help has an empowering but also alienating effect on Helena, noticed by the other members of her family.
These distinct themes are expressed by the filmmakers through a combination of drama, horror, and humor, which induces their films to a light flow. Both Rojas and Dutra have exercised that unique style since their beginnings as film students in the School of Arts and Communication at the University of São Paulo (ECA/USP) in the 1990s. After starting a film collective, the São Paulo-based Filmes do caixote, with director Caetano Gotardo (editor of As boas maneiras), these young directors started making very low budget and yet acclaimed short and feature films in a variety of formats.
Awarded in Brazilian and international festivals, their work, like those from other film collectives, has established a trend in Brazil’s film scene during the last fifteen years. In a film industry that demands increasingly high-cost production and stars, Rojas and Dutra have shown their resilience by making innovative, independent, and inexpensive films over the years. As boas maneiras is their first big budget film. And yet, all the irony, gaping criticism, and open irreverence that saturate their previous work are there for us to see. São Paulo, the immense metropolis, is, for them, still the same: gentrified, deceitful, gothic, and terrifying.