“While taking advantage of an anchored and stormy lead performance, Casa Grande is otherwise full of only partially-realized ideas and themes.”
by Ken Bakely
Modern-day Brazil has been widely perceived by the world, perhaps to a point of hyperbole, as a nation in crisis – economically, socially, and politically. Think about it now, in July 2016, less than a month removed from the Summer Olympics, which are to be held in Rio de Janeiro. President Dilma Rousseff has been suspended from office due to her involvement in one of the biggest and most far-reaching scandals in the history of a western democracy. Public workers have gone on strike and told those arriving in Rio for the upcoming games that they are “entering hell”. The Zika virus has scared off a number of athletes and members of the international press. And all the while, another recession looms. Indeed, while many of these issues may not adversely affect the day-to-day lives of the nation’s affluent suburbanites, the slump the country has suffered can soon expose itself in gradual ways. The slow, creeping effects of long-term financial downturn (on a micro rather than macro level) is the antagonist at the center of Fellipe Barbosa’s Casa Grande, a 114 minute film which focuses on an upper-middle class family in Rio as unrest and stagnation threatens their fortunes and their own stability. The title, which translates to “big house”, seems to evoke that English-language term for a prison, as the pampered, well-staged existence of the characters at the forefront of the story dismantles at the seams, as personal struggles and old conflicts begin to reveal themselves, compacting an already-difficult time of great uncertainty.
Barbosa chooses not to overblow matters, realizing that a melodramatic approach could backfire and come off as an unintentional comedy. However, his tendency to understate and take a chamber drama-approach to his script doesn’t pay off either, as he has trouble connecting the various characters and threads, denying a kind of immediacy that is only inferred, rather than explored to satisfaction. The proceedings are largely viewed through the eyes of Jean (Thales Cavalcanti), who lives in the titular residence. He is nearly eighteen, and lives with his younger sister Nathalie (Alice Melo), his mother Sônia (Suzana Pires), and his father Hugo (Marcello Novaes), a well-established businessman. Subtle changes have been springing up around the household – the family’s chauffeur has suddenly left his post. Hugo does not allow his children to turn on the air conditioner anymore, even in the dead of summer. But whenever Jean asks about these developments, his father returns with a rather innocuous explanation, innocent enough to dismiss the question. The truth is that the family is running out of money – a massive union lawsuit is pending against Hugo and his fellow executives, and it is likely that they will have to pay untold amounts in fines and settlements. Personal bankruptcy is almost guaranteed. But Hugo does not share a word of this with Jean, and an already strained relationship between the two is likely to spiral into chaos, as this secrecy builds upon the stress of an already pivotal time in Jean’s life. His cries for independence and transparency go unheeded, but they can’t be ignored forever.
While taking advantage of Cavalcanti’s anchored and stormy lead performance, Casa Grande is otherwise full of only partially-realized ideas and themes. Lengthy conversations on hot-button issues are never incorporated into the film outright, and instead remain non sequiturs, the fodder of dinner table conversation and little more, despite the undertones of these issues that are paramount to the background of the central conflict. Jean talks about a lot of things with a lot of people, and in the spur of those moments, the film is at least ostensibly interested in capturing the conversations – he discusses relationships and sex with his family’s maid (Clarissa Pinheiro), he discusses racial politics with a mixed-race girl (Bruna Amaya) he befriends after meeting on the bus, and he (barely) discusses economics with his father. But the rest of the movie doesn’t really care about these subjects after the scene is over. This wishy-washy approach dulls the movie a bit, to the point that Barbosa has to rely purely on the human drama at the forefront and the strength of the performances – which are fine in their own right – at the cost of eschewing the implication of deeper impressions and fixtures.