Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"Freire captures not just the emotional but physical force of these relationships, with the women coming to blows, their acts of cruelty to one another as powerful as their acts of love." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Tempestuous family relationships rage at the heart of Pedro Freire’s debut feature, which is rooted in the real life of his mother Malu Rocha - a human tornado around which the rest of the family spins. An ageing actress, life is a show for Malu (Yara de Novaes), who we meet as she practises vocal exercises on the roof of her dilapidated home in a Rio de Janiero favela. Theatrics, in general, are at the heart of Freire’s film, which largely plays out as a claustrophobic chamber piece - emphasised by its boxy ratio and lit by its trio of blistering performances.

Malu’s days of fame and fortune may be in the past but she still has big dreams of turning the crumbling building into a community theatre. At the present moment, however, it is home to her and her elderly mother Lili (Juliana Carneiro da Cunha), whose equally strong personality puts her in almost constant opposition with her daughter. Living alongside them is Malu’s queer Black friend Tibera (Átila Bee), who inhabits one of the home’s even more rundown outhouses. Everything about Malu’s life is galeforce, whether it is her expressions of love or anger, something we see at full throttle when her mother invites the local priest round because she is so concerned about her daughter’s weed habit, a fear that is further fuelled by the older woman’s racism and homophobia towards Tibera, who is also Malu’s supplier.

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Into this maelstrom steps Joana (Carol Duarte), Malu’s nail-biting actress daughter who has just come back from France and whose relationship with her mother is also fractious. Her arrival comes just as her grandmother has been banished to another of the home’s outhouses after a particularly violent episode. This is not a film in which oil is poured on troubled waters or, at least, if it ever is, it’s as likely to catch fire as it is to calm the waves.

Freire captures not just the emotional but physical force of these relationships, with the women coming to blows, their acts of cruelty to one another as powerful as their acts of love. De Novaes may be the film’s fulcrum, but the performances of Carneiro da Cunha and Duarte are equally important drivers of a film that is riven with unpredictable tensions and outbursts.

Malu explores the common ground the women share but also the territorial nature of each of them, stemming in part from different traumas that ricochet around the family unit. There is political context lightly dressed in as Malu laments her own daughter’s acquiescence in comparison to her life of rebellion during Brazil’s Years of Lead dictatorship, which came with a cost. Despite the film’s often violent nature, Freire also allows us to see that no matter what the family’s jealousies and disputes, love is the ultimate force to be reckoned with and will not be denied.

Reviewed on: 02 Feb 2024
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Malu - a mercurial, unemployed actress living with her conservative mother in a precarious house in a Rio de Janeiro slum - tries to deal with her strained relationship with her own adult daughter while surviving on memories of her glorious artistic past.

Director: Pedro Freire

Writer: Pedro Freire

Starring: Yara de Novaes, Juliana Carneiro da Cunha, Carol Duarte, Átila Bee, Marcio Vito, Marina Provenzzano, Felipe Haiut

Year: 2024

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Brazil

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