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Charcoal (Carvão)

Brazilian thriller about rural famiy tasked with harbouring a drug lord blends the sinister with the absurd to pitch-perfect results - live from the Transylvania International Film Festival


Irene (Maeve Jinkings) lives with her husband Jairo (Romulo Braga), their nine-year-old son Jean (Jean de Almeida da Costa) and her ailing, bedridden father Firmino (Benedito Alves) in a small rural community somewhere near Sao Paulo. The old man can no longer talk and walk, and he requires oxygen tanks in order to keep him alive. The houses are equally precarious, with crumbling walls and roofs. The weather is cold and there is little sign of the urban and modern civilisation. Irene and Jairo’s biggest connection to the outside world is through their evangelical church, where they passionately invite Jesus Christ the Lord into their hearts and attempt to instil some more profound meaning into their humdrum existence. The ways they conduct themselves, on the other hand, are hardly pious.

One day, the healthcare assistant in charge of Firmino’s oxygen, a cold and unscrupulous woman called Juracy (Aline Marta Maia) makes a very unorthodox proposal: she will euthanise the old man and replace him with a bandit fugitive from Argentina, providing the family with a large sum of money for the nefarious operations. They promptly agree. Crime lord Miguel (Cesar Bordon) moves in with them. He is barely able to walk outside the house lest the neighbours notice his presence. The four people are forced to forge a very uncomfortable sense of conviviality inside a very small space. They struggle to communicate, with Miguel speaking broken Portuguese. But not all is as bad as it seems. Despite having to grapple with a dangerous murderer, Irene, Jair and the clever little Jean all benefit from the presence of the stranger in different ways.

Pepe Mendes’s elegant and sombre cinematography (the settings are dark and claustrophobic) combined with Marines Mencio’s dirty art direction (Irene’s mirror is so filthy you can barely make her out, the walls are painted in vivid blue and green heavily corroded by the passage of time) suggest a lurid horror story. Yet Charcoal is a quirky little thriller packed with clever twists, hilarious serendipities and sexual hormones. Irene and Jairo have little affection for each other. She attempts to seduce to drug lord by placing a seductive picture of herself in a very strategic location. Jairo has an affair with the neighbour’s husband. He splashes much of the money earned from Juracy on a motorbike for the man who provides him with carnal satisfaction. The little Jean too finds a creative way to capitalise from the situation, providing some of the film funniest and most brilliant moments (de Almeida da Costa is a delightful revelation). The school principle finds out that he’s dealing cocaine, and explains to the puzzled parents that he’s too young for that (marijuana would be more acceptable, she clarifies). Jean has a better grasp of the bizarre developments surrounding him than both of his parents and Miguel combined. This picture of fraught alliances and suspicions isn’t complete without the prying neighbours. They sense there’s something rotten, and might have ulterior motives to interfere.

Jinkings’s performance as a religious, devoted wife with very sinister intentions is convincing and complex. The 46-year-old actress demonstrates that she is skilled with urban (she is best known for Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Neighbouring Sounds and Aquarius, from 2012 and 2016 respectively) and rural characters alike.

This dark, cold and yet seductive fable of the absurd is both aesthetically and emotionally enrapturing. The director sustains a tight grip during 107 minutes, balancing the fine actors with aesthetics of dirt. A dirtylicious ending provides the cherry on the cake to a story packed with all sorts of flavours.

Charcoal is in Competition at the 22nd Transylvania International Film Festival. DMovies is in loco unearthing the dirtiest gems exclusively for you. It’s available on various VoD platforms in the UK.

By Victor Fraga - 12-06-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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