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Toll (Pedágio)

Road toll worker slips into a life of crime in order to pay for her son's gay conversion therapy, in this spectacularly dirty Brazilian piece of absurd realism - from Latin Horizons section of the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival


Suellen (Maeve Jinkings) works as a toll booth assistant on an extremely busy motorway in the highly industrialised Brazilian state of Sao Paulo. She lives in the densely populated, extremely ugly and chaotic city of Cubatão (once hailed as the “most polluted city on Earth”, and affectionately nicknamed “Valley of Death”) with her only child, 18-year-old Antonio (Kauan Alvarenga). Suellen is white, and Antonio is jet black, presumably the byproduct of a relationship long gone (we never see his father). The colour of their skin isn’t the only prominent contrast between mother and son. Suellen is a normative, homophobic heterosexual with little interest in international culture, while Antonio is an unapologetic homosexual tuned in with American music and lifestyle. He occasionally records dance videos vaguely camping it up and shares them on Whatsapp, sending shockwaves amongst Suellen and her evangelical friends. “I have been told you’re nearly a tranny”, the despondent mother tells Antonio.

Suellen and Antonio inhabit a deeply corrupt world of shady characters. A toll customer asks Suellen what she could give him in exchange, after being prompted for the correct fee money. Her deeply devoted evangelical colleague Telma (Aline Marta Maia) is very comfortable with transactional sex, routinely allowing customers to fuck her in the nearby bushes (“this is an affliction that affects women past their 50s”, she justifies her not-so-Christian behaviour). Carol’s boyfriend Arauto (Thomas Aquino) robs expensive vehicles at gunpoint, and hides the stolen goods in Suellen’s house (without her knowledge). Evangelicals preachers and politicians rip their followers/ voters in a variety of ways, we are reliably informed. Suellen and Antonio attempt to stay squeaky clean, instead living an honest existence. But that’s about to change.

Suellen asks to help Arauto in his dangerous (and potentially murderous) criminal activities in exchange for R$1,650 (about £250), a whopping sum for an unskilled Brazilian worker. Her purposes are very noble, at least in her mind. Telma and her evangelical associates brainwash Suellen into enrolling Antonio in a gay conversion therapy course taught by a “very experienced European expert”. The conversion “therapist” turns out to be a scrawny and dishevelled preacher with a dodgy Portuguese accent and some very peculiar conversion techniques. These are the film’s most absurd and hilarious moments. A go-go boy who used to perform with a firework rocket attached to his anus tells that the class that he is now fully devoted to his wife. “Patients” are given a Play-Doh sculpture of the genitalia of the same sex and asked to shape into one of the opposite sex. And it gets worse, with vagina and penis juices and a very graphic and detailed study elucidating why the anus is dirty and should be avoided. Brazilian reactionaries have an anal obsession, with ultra-far-right former president persistently attempting to reduce homosexuality to anal sex, a former presidential candidate saying on national television show that “the excretory system is not aimed for reproduction”, and a very famous evangelical preacher stating that “God gave the anus a [terrible] smell so nobody would go near it” (video in Portuguese). In other words, the absurd little world created by Carol Markowitz (who also penned the film script) is entirely plausible, constructed upon Brazil bizarre imaginary.

Jinkings delivers a magnetic performance as a headstrong, tough and yet loving mother. And Antonio is very convincing as a gay man comfortable in his own skin, and handling the hypocrisy and cynicism around him with great aplomb. They represent the two extremes of a country dogged by contradictions. While Brazil has the biggest number of gay murders in the world, and recently elected one of the most rabidly homophobic heads of government in the world (Jair Bolsonaro), the country also boasts the biggest gay march on this planet (in the nearby city of Sao Paulo), it legalised gay marriage before the UK and the US, and it has a young generation of LGBT+ firebrands furiously shattering gender and sexuality stereotypes. What makes Toll even more interesting is the fact that Jinkings (who plays the homophobic mother) is in a same-sex relationship with the director Markowicz.

Toll boasts a sombre, Brechtian cinematography signed by Luis Armando Arteaga (of Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses, 2018), which adds a much needed touch of alienation, imprisonment and hopelessness to the story (even if the movie does have the occasional moment of tenderness and beauty).

Helmer and scribe Carolina Marcowitz is a rightful cinematic heiress to Brazilian writer Nelson Rodrigues. His plays, novels and short stories (which were routinely adapted to silver screen) contained deeply twisted characters who found either redemption or tragedy in the most absurd and shocking ways. Rodrigues, who is widely considered Brazil’s biggest playwright, infused his stories with homosexuals, crime, promiscuity and obscenities of all sorts. He died in 1980 and Brazil has changed a lot since. Perhaps unintentionally Marcowicz has successfully adapted his delicious subversions into the 21st century.

Toll just premiered in the Latin Horizons section of the 71st San Sebastian International Film Festival. This is Carol Marcowicz’s second feature film, after last year’s similarly dirty Charcoal. A bright future lies ahead for this deeply imaginative and subversive Brazilian filmmaker.

By Victor Fraga - 30-09-2023

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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