Film Review: Good Manners

Lycanthropics in the tropics, at leisurely length.
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The semi-moribund werewolf genre gets a flavorsome injection of Brazilian blood in Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas's enjoyably ambitious Good Manners. Just as lycanthropes combine human and lupine aspects, the picture itself is a hybrid of art-house and genre cinema, combining sharp social commentary with Grand Guignol fantasy. At 136 minutes, a little trimming might have given it a better shot at emulating the most obvious antecedent, Tomas Alfredson's 2008 Swedish kiddie-vampire smash Let the Right One In.

Even at that excessive length, however, this second feature collaboration from Dutra and Rojas—after 2011's comparatively brisk, 99-minute Hard Labor—could find favor. Leading ladies Isabel Zuaa and Marjorie Estiano (excellent in her limited screen time) are particularly prize-worthy as two unlikely friends from very different sides of the tracks, whose relationship traces a course of compelling flux throughout the slow-paced first half.

Clara (Zuaa) is an independent-minded, self-possessed professional caretaker from a favela in the teeming mega-metropolis' poorer suburbs. She's taken on as a live-in nanny by wealthy expectant mother Ana (Estiano), and as the big day approaches Clara's role shifts from servant to confidant/friend to lover. Meanwhile, Ana displays some decidedly unusual behavior during her pregnancy, her full-moon somnambulism nudging Good Manners steadily closer to fright-cinema territory.

The shift decisively occurs at the one-hour mark, when one of the ickiest childbirth sequences in living memory introducing a grotesque infant of evidently supernatural origin. The film's second half, set seven years later, reveals he has grown into an ostensibly normal and well-mannered kid, Joel (Miguel Lobo). Clara has raised him back home in the favela, where she keeps her adopted charge to a strict vegetarian diet and takes special precautions when the moon is full...

Dutra and Rojas draw extensively and sensitively from previous werewolf capers of both literary and cinematic origin. They incorporate nods to classics such as John Landis' An American Werewolf in London in a manner that will delight horror geeks, although the climactic update on the torch-wielding mob of vengeful peasants is perhaps one hoary trope too far.

More troublingly, it seems a little odd that such respectful students of this perennially economical subgenre should have allowed their running time to sprawl so far beyond the two-hour mark. Leaving aside such outliers as Van Helsing and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanGood Manners is in fact probably the longest werewolf film ever made, eclipsing Mike Nichols' 125-minute 1994 flop Wolf. And while there's clearly a lot of ground being tackled here in terms of complex social and cultural subject matter, editor Caetano Gordano (whose sole previous feature credit is Hard Labor) should nevertheless have found some way of condensing the material to a more manageable length.

The first hour is the strongest, graced as it is by Estiano's nuanced performance as a conventional-seeming young woman who gradually and very sympathetically reveals her inner self after welcoming Clara into her life. Newcomer Lobo, presumably unearthed by casting director Alice Wolfenson—yes, these apparently are their real names—is an appealing presence as Joel disappearing into less-than-stellar CGI when the kid undergoes his periodical transformation into a pre-teen wolf.

The Brazil-France co-production scores more impressively craft-wise in terms of cinematography and production design. Rui Pocas and Fernando Zuccolotto render the interiors and exteriors of São Paulo—its classes divided by the Pinheiros River—via suitably fable-like stylizations, the impact heightened by the sinisterly delicate fairytale tones of Guilherme and Gustavo Garbato's classy, harp-heavy score.--The Hollywood Reporter