A gender-aware reading of “Good Manners”


The sign that a country’s cinema has come into its own internationally seems to be that it does not need to be defined by where it’s from, or the country’s particular issues it keeps on tackling; the quality of the filmmaking is enough, it’s become a brand. It has earned enough confidence to be experimental, to take thematic risks and bend and mix genres. Having caught Good Manners (As Boas Maneiras / Gute Manieren) at Leipzig’s Luru Kino last weekend, I got the feeling that Brazilian cinema may now have reached this point.

"Good Manners" French poster. (Source: http://www.adorocinema.com)
“Good Manners” French poster. (Source: www.adorocinema.com)

Although Good Manners is a co-production with France, with German support, its writer-directors and most of its cast are Brazilian, and the film is entirely set in São Paulo. At the same time, the São Paulo of the film, except for a few named spots and the skyline, could have been a metropolis anywhere in the world, which adds to the universality of the themes this modern urban fable addresses. A film that opens with the domestic hierarchy we Brazilians know so well gradually morphs into raw sexuality, non-class-related violence and fantasy (partly via computer animation).

Made by young and already renowned duo Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra, Good Manners nabbed the Special Jury Prize at Locarno in 2017 and debuted in general cinemas last week. It’s a werewolf story as well as lesbian romance and social critique. While the film does bring Brazil’s racial and class divides into the scene, the filmmakers appear to have chosen not to put them at center stage, rather using them as contours to highlight its main female outcasts’ differences and similarities.

Shedding the “good manners” expected of them as women in their own milieus, the archetypes of the rich white boss (“patroa”) and poor black maid (“empregada”) bond amid their shared isolation and impulses, while challenging the stereotypes assigned to them.

Good Manners has garnered largely positive reviews, which tend to praise its intricacies, artsy cinematography and genre-bending qualities (and complain a little about its long length and cheapening by graphic horror scenes). What the reviews I read have missed, though, is the depth of the film’s gender dimension.

This dimension is really what jumped out at me, something I have not often experienced watching other Brazilian films that hit it big internationally. That, and the beautiful, tranquil pastel tones inside the rich lady’s apartment, contrasting with the tension and sense of foreboding lurking beneath, the window framing a cartoonish, sinister full moon and sky. (HINT: WEREWOLF.)

The basic plot sees the pregnant Ana (Marjorie Estiano) hiring Clara (Isabél Zuaa) as her caretaker during her difficult pregnancy, plagued by nightmares and bizarre episodes of somnambulism. Clara, who is clearly not subservient and also unable to hold down a job, moves from São Paulo’s periphery to Ana’s upscale home. We find out that Ana is a rebel, rather “uncivilized,” and has been ostracized by her father, brother and ex-fiancé. (HINT: NOT THE BABY DADDY.)

If you take the movie at face-value, you may lament how over-the-top it gets from the end of the first act, but may have a greater appreciation for it if you can see how the gender dimension connects all its parts.

From the movie poster and how the story progresses during its first act, it becomes evident that what Ana has been carrying in her womb – a son – is not entirely human. Clara and Ana grow closer each step of the way. They choose to go through the whole gestation together rather than turning to men for help, even when Ana’s running out of (her dad’s) money.

You notice the change in both of them. The two women’s affection for each other gives them strength. Clara may even get a new sense of purpose and confidence to move up in life, at least while she’s allowed.

Men in this movie are mostly kept in the background, as all the major characters are women (except for the lupine boy Joel, played by Miguel Lobo). Nevertheless, throughout the plot, we feel their power of oppression and destruction, callous and violent to different degrees, upon “their” women: as fathers, lovers, sons. Even when they can’t help it; even as little children.

Isabél Zuaa as Clara in "Good Manners." (Photo © Salzgeber & Co. Medien GmbH)
Isabél Zuaa as Clara in “Good Manners.” (Photo © Salzgeber & Co. Medien GmbH)

In my view, the tragedy depicted in Good Manners, especially through Zuaa and Estiano’s outstanding performances, goes beyond the transformation of man into beast (“boys will be boys,” or “wolves,” when the moon is full and they bestially give way to their urges). It’s more about the women who suffer through such a scenario. This film’s true tragedy is that women’s attempts to fully become themselves and independent, or even to be there for each other, get curtailed in caring for, being used, consumed and discarded by, and serving the interests of, men.

For all the leading ladies’ fierceness, this appears to be an inescapable fate for both Ana and Clara, regardless of their race or social station (and not all boys are immune either).

Are the angry mob and their torches after the werewolf, or are they really after Clara?

The film’s elite pastels, the ‘hood’s warm yellows and oranges, the lullabies and hymns, bleed into a stark picture: Women’s attempts to move outside the accepted contours will be short-lived under the current system – they are supposed to live and die as dutiful daughters, wives, mothers (or nannies). They will ultimately sacrifice their dreams and themselves for the men in their lives, sneaking in there perniciously the more they try to escape it.

Check movie showtimes for Good Manners (OmU) at Leipzig cinemas this week

Cover shot: Ana (Marjorie Estiano) and Clara (Isabél Zuaa) share a moment of tenderness in Good Manners. (Source: www.adorocinema.com)

A Global Studies doctoral degree holder and former newspaper reporter, avid eater, pseudo-philosopher and poet, occasion-propelled singer, semi-professional socializer, movie addict, Brazilian-American nomad. In this space, she will share some of her experiences and (mis)adventures regarding various topics, with special attention to social issues.

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