Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Wolf at the Door: a Kidnapping in Rio

In most violent criminal cases, the cops automatically suspect relatives or someone close to the family. The kidnapper of six-year-old Clara certainly qualifies as the latter. You could say she has a relationship with both the mother and the father. What starts out as a mystery becomes a stark inquiry into motivation, so do not expect any bossa nova in Fernando Coimbra’s uncompromisingly grim and gritty A Wolf at the Door (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

On this fateful afternoon, poor Clara is picked up from school, but not by her mother, Sylvia, who has good reason to panic. Since she and her husband Bernardo have little money, ransom seems unlikely, so they immediately turn to the police. Det. Delgado is aloof, but he has some choice comments for the teachers who blithely lets Clara walk away with her abductor. Those lines provide the only humor, dark as it is, throughout Coimbra’s relentlessly dour narrative.

Suspicion soon falls on Rosa, Bernardo’s mistress, but she manages to talk her way through Delgado’s first interrogation. However, when we learn she knowingly cultivated an ostensive friendship with Sylvia, her presumptive rival, it is safe to assume something is up with her.

Although the first act is relatively procedural-ish, Coimbra quickly lays all his cards on the table, through a series of flashbacks and time-shifts. We get the facts quickly enough, but the film wants us to agonize over questions of motive and madness. While we can admire the integrity of Coimbra’s approach, most well-adjusted viewers will resent the way he forces the audience to wallow in his characters’ existential wretchedness.

Let’s face it, this film is not much fun. Granted, the performances are powerfully effective, but in a scrupulously realistic way. Obviously, there is no escapism in Wolf, nor is there any stylistic devices to distance viewers from the angst and bile on-screen. It is like watching a disturbingly intimate and exploitative documentary.

Nevertheless, the vaguely nauseous dread Wolf inspires is a testament to its small ensemble. Milhem Cortaz is particularly menacing as Bernardo, the low rent Lothario. Juliano Cazarré is also shrewdly understated as Delgado, while Leandra Leal nurtures Rosa’s corrosive craziness quite believably.

It is easy to resent Wolf for rubbing our noses in its inhumanity, but it must be conceded Coimbra plays a masterfully manipulative game of show-and-tell every step of the way. Unfortunately, it rather belabors the same naturalistic and deterministic notes over and over. Recommended for fans of Latin American miserablism, A Wolf at the Door opens tomorrow (3/27) in New York, at the Village East.