Alice's House , documentarian Chico Teixeira's first fictional feature, is a look inside a middle-class family in Sao Paolo seen largely through the eyes of Alice, a frustrated fortyish manicurist. Teixeira shows us infidelity, love affairs, sibling rivalry and ageing through a cold lens that reflects his cinematic origins.
Teixeira defies most of the rules of feature filmmaking - no make-up, no music, raw sound, long shots - all of which give his story and characters an exceptional emotional truth. Yet the look and sound of the film, and the absence of a conventional dramatic arc, are likely to keep the mainstream audience away, despite the critical praise that is sure to come on the festival and art circuits.
As Alice, Carla Ribas plays a woman weary with her dallying husband Lindomar (Zecarios Machado) and concerned that her mother, Dona Jacira (Berta Zemel), is going blind. The women do all the housework, while Alice's three sons and Lindomar lounge around talking openly about sex. (Dad's preference is for teenage girls.)
The macho male posturing stands in contrast to the female world of the manicure salon where Alice tends to her clients' beauty needs and hears their woes. Things threaten to get dicey when Alice starts an affair with Nilson (Luciano Quirino), a black man who is an old classmate and the husband of Carmen (Renata Zhaneta), one of her regular clients. Carmen eventually suspects that her husband is cheating with someone and vows to get even.
Mauro Pedroso's camera shifts between Alice's work and her apartment, and to bedroom scenes with Nilson that track a failing relationship. Shots linger in both places. As the camera watches motionlessly, Texeira allows emotions to fester and bubble upward.
Lindomar heartlessly forces Dona Tacira out of her own apartment. His brazen disrespect for the old woman creates so much unease among audiences that they laugh - the only thing close to humour in this grim drama, unless you count Carla Ribas's remarkable resemblance to the American TV actress Fran Drescher.
The film dispenses with the visual cliches of a decorated sexy Brazil. Street life is commonplace. Interiors at home or at work look drab, undecorated, often illuminated by the light of the television, probably typifying middle-class homes in Brazil's largest city.
Texeira has acknowledged the demonstrable influence of Mike Leigh and the Dardenne brothers, but a clear visual template is also the Brazilian telenovela, in which characters speak bluntly and tersely, and marital cheating is either an imminent threat or a reality. Here Teixeira gives that medium his personal compression into 90 minutes, with a strong reality check.
Also striking is the soundtrack of Alice's House, which has no music. As a result, everyday life sounds of air conditioners, fans and traffic hum noticeably through the entire film. In the apartment, the lonely grandmother's favourite radio program is always on, keep her company, since no one else will.
Tempers do fly, although Alice's House never reaches a crescendo as life whirs slowly by. In that greyness, Texeira's ordinary characters have a quiet genuineness and clarity that is rare anywhere in movies these days.
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