‘Malu’ Review: Superbly Acted Brazilian Drama Traces Tumultuous Mother-Daughter Relationships

Smoking weed and telling off Catholic priests are just two of the ways Malu Rocha (Yara de Novaes) asserts her rebellious spirit. The eccentric, indomitable and idiosyncratic actress at that center of Pedro Freire’s feature debut “Malu” is the embodiment of a highly flammable substance. Her volatile personality, capable of consuming everything in her way, ignites a Rio de Janeiro-set intergenerational drama inspired by the life story of the director’s mother.

Malu doesn’t live in the present. Most of the time, she’s either retelling stories from her youth about getting into trouble with the law during the dictatorship years, or else rambling about a hypothetical future. Malu dreams of turning her home into a cultural center where kids from the nearby favela can come for recreational activities and theater productions. But the property needs as many repairs as do her relationships with both her elderly mother Lili (Juliana Carneiro da Cunha) and her daughter Joana (Carol Duarte), who’s just returned to Brazil from France and is also pursuing acting.

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The highs are luminously high, and the lows are terrifyingly low among this trio of women. Each has her own wounds — from each other, from the men in their lives — manifested in screaming matches charged with deeply rooted resentment. At times, they quite literally claw at each other’s faces with animalistic virulence. Within the boxy aspect ratio that cinematographer Mauro Pinheiro Jr. commands, there are shots of Malu, Joana and Lili positioned in the back, middle and foreground respectively — a visual representation of this fiery lineage.

Based on how swiftly she morphs from loving to spiteful, it’d be easy to determine that Malu is the sole catalyst for chaos in this family. And yet, Freire ensures we can appreciate that some of these flaws were not only the product of growing up with Lili, but they are also present in Joana, albeit to a lesser degree. The filmmaker constructs the characters as partial mirrors of one another, capable of both inflicting emotional damage with their sharp words and showing overwhelmingly sincere displays of physical affection.

Lili blames Malu’s marijuana habit for her erratic behavior — her scapegoat for denying that her actions as a mother had a role in molding her daughter into who she is. Likewise, Malu ragefully evades Joana’s accusations of neglect. For all the awful similarities they share in parenting styles, where Malu and Lili differ is in the way the latter holds racist and conservative views targeting Malu’s close friend and “tenant” Tibira (Átila Bee), a Black gay man. Despite her prudish persona, Lili has no qualms about urinating in the middle of the street, much to her granddaughter’s embarrassment. These specifically outrageous exploits elucidate more about who they are than any expository lines ever could.

Lived in to the point that it becomes difficult to perceive it as a calculated representation and not raw truth, what the superb De Novaes does with this acting feat is at once electric and monstrous. Her Malu is a woman whose restless spirit contains equal parts lust for life and impending violence. Capable of cloying tenderness and heart-piercing vitriol, it’s the type of character that generates a strong ambivalent response — oscillating between off-putting and magnetic — thanks to De Novaes’ willingness to let herself be fully possessed by the role. The two other actresses, Duarte in particular, stand their dramatic ground, understanding that their role is to remain in the periphery of De Novaes’ gravitational pull.

Quarrels come and go with the same frequency as acts of kindness in Malu’s dilapidated, would-be art space of a home. No emotion lasts long enough to even insinuate a semblance of stability, a reflection of Malu’s mental health that, to no avail, Joana wants to get her help with. For the viewer, this creates an interesting state of anxious anticipation, since we can’t predict how her next outburst will pan out.

Though she may embellish her radical past with exaggeration, there’s some validity to Malu’s gripe that Joana’s generation has become complacent and too safe for its own good. There’s a liberating power, which comes with consequences, in being so reluctant to keep one’s feet on the ground. Malu is not beholden to anything, neither the establishment nor her futile aspirations, not even her loved ones. And it’s because she goes through life so freely that when the grim reaper knocks at her door, she lets him with an insolent grin.

Nothing extraordinary happens in “Malu,” other than the exploration of how people over time — and over scars — mend through forgiveness, while learning to love each other on their own imperfect terms. That’s more than enough. With one key location and a handful of actors, Freire produced a picture that features the same pieces of other familial portraits but moves with a singular force.

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