By Robert St. Martin
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 6/3/23 – Currently running May 31 through June 3 is the Los Angeles International Latino Film Festival (LAILFF) in Hollywood – with a fine lineup of feature films, documentaries, short films, and music events at the Chinese TCL Theatres in Ovation Complex in Hollywood. On Thursday night (June 1) was a screening of Carolina Markowicz’s debut feature film “Charcoal” (“Carvão,” Brazil/Argentina, 2022). This darkly comic and suspenseful film is set up like a thriller but unfolds like a shaggy dog story full of thematic and metaphoric resonances. Brazilian director Carolina Markowicz won awards for her previous short film “The Orphan” (“O Órfão”), a story about a queer teenage boy suddenly placed in an unfamiliar family. In “Charcoal,” Markowicz builds her story around an outsider placed with a poor, rural Brazilian family. Given that the outsider is an Argentine drug lord who is trying to hide out and pretend to be dead, the threat of violence looms over the entire film.
The film stars Maeve Jinkings as Irene, a strong-willed and hard-working woman living in a rural village in Brazil. Her husband Jairo (Rômulo Braga) earns money seasonally burning charcoal, but when he’s out of work he spends what little he has on booze and sometimes hangs out with a male neighbor who promises him work. The couple’s nine-year-old son Jean (Jean de Almeida Costa) is a sweet but clever kid who shares a bedroom with his bedridden grandfather Firmino (Benedito Alves), who has had a stroke and can no longer walk, talk or breathe without additional oxygen. This is the family’s sorry situation until one day the district nurse does not show up to change Firmino’s oxygen tank. Instead, a healthcare worker named Juracy (Aline Martas Maia) comes to the shabby home of the Irene’s family.
Immediately sizing up the family and the weight of the burden Irene in particular is carrying, Juracy makes a modest proposal: Why not “replace” poor old Firmino with someone who can help the family out financially? To this end, we soon realize that she proposes euthanizing the old man and then taking in a special sort of lodger with money. As we see, this lodger is actually an Argentinian crime “jefe” named Miguel (César Bordón) who has faked his own death and needs to lie low for a while. Juracy, it seems, is seriously connected to criminal connections and no ordinary healthcare worker.
This healthcare worker Juracy who come to check on Firmino’s breathing says that there’s basically no chance of him getting better. So, Irene visits her priest to ask if God wants him to suffer or if He wants him to die. The priest does not really answer her directly but says it’s “complicated.” But he is glad to welcome her pledge to donate a bit more, telling her that the Church has been struggling financially – as the camera pulls back to show the beautifully appointed building in all its splendor,
With nowhere else to turn, Irene is easily persuaded to make a deal. The problem with her father will be taken care of. In return for this, and for what to them is a significant amount of money, she and her family will play host to criminal kingpin Miguel, who needs a place to hide after faking his own death. Enough time need to go by for people to forget him, explain the people who arrange the deal, and then he can retire to an island.
Markowicz introduces farcical elements as it emerges that country life is anything but simple, explores the clash of masculine egos between the privileged mobster and Irene’s much more temperamental, frequently inebriated husband Jairo, and observes Miguel’s gradual disintegration as the waiting game becomes more Kafkaesque. “Are you a pedophile?” Jean asks Miguel on arrival, and, having been assured that that is not the cases, gradually becomes his friend and confidante. Flashing the cash at school, where the Coca-Cola is on him, risks inviting difficult questions, but he is the first to note the difficulty posed by the guest’s cocaine addiction, and happy to betray his parents’ secrets in casual conversation.
These include the lonely Irene’s crush on Miguel, which seems to be based more on daydreams about a glamorous criminal lifestyle than anything else. If she isn’t getting much attention from Jairo, that’s because his interests lie elsewhere with a male neighbor, and Miguel’s presence isn’t the only thing he doesn’t want the neighbors to find out about. Although Miguel is a criminal overlord, he turns out to be charming and peevish. He exerts a strange fascination over all three remaining members of the family in different ways, like Terence Stamp in Pasolini’s “Teorema.”
Village life is steeped in religious tradition. Markowicz scores her film with hymns, which often end abruptly. When Irene has doubts, she remembers that God teaches forgiveness. As the church hymn suggests, “If God isn’t listening, maybe the devil is.” The pastor counters with a meek platitude –“God is healing” – and sends Irene on her way. What Irene didn’t tell him is that a deal with the devil is on the table. The satire, here and elsewhere, tends to be unsubtle, it still works thanks to the investment made in character. Amid such a strong ensemble, Jinkings as Irene is the standout performer, incarnating a woman full of half-crushed dreams but an uncanny sense of resilience.