LFF 2017: Good Manners Review
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It becomes clear while watching Good Manners (As Boas Maneiras) that this is a bold, striking film of two very different halves. Beginning as a gripping yet unassuming drama centring on themes of female relationships and motherhood, the film suddenly morphs into something altogether more shocking after the reveal of a wholly unexpected twist. Indeed, to talk in too much detail about this incident would ruin one of the most bizarre, memorable films of recent years, and a tale that really is best seen to be believed.
Writer-directors Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas are careful not to reveal the strangeness of this world at first, steadily building up their narrative rather than showing us what is actually at the heart of this São Paulo-set story. Clara (Isabél Zuaa) certainly sees nothing unusual when she first begins her new job as a live-in nanny for Ana (Marjorie Estiano) and her unborn child. Instead she sees a young woman so completely out of her depth that she feels so has no other option than to help her, the two of them soon drawing closer and finding strength together. Zuaa and Estiano’s brilliant performances perfectly compliment each other in these moments, this central relationship growing naturally and gradually drawing us in, Dutra and Rojas using it as a way to lull us into a false sense of security about what is to follow.
When Dutra and Rojas do begin to offer us hints of darker goings-on, the initially light, carefree tone gradually begins to change, the creeping dread that was always there slowly coming to the surface. Good Manners then becomes increasingly uneasy to watch, Clara’s worry for Ana and her child still not fully revealing what is going on until it culminates in that horrid, almost nauseating, twist. It is a moment so out of the blue that it is almost difficult to recover from, the impact particularly felt because of the slow build-up used to get to this point. It is also here that the story suddenly shifts and reveals itself to actually be a modern-day fairy tale, which although only alluded to in the first half via a beautifully animated tableau, is now brought to the forefront of the film. From the music, to the touches of folklore, to the increasing murkiness of the narrative, this fantasy world is slowly brought to life and interwoven with the story we have seen up until now. Except this fairy tale is about to become more nightmarish than even the darkest bedtime stories.
Despite this change in genre, Dutra and Rojas keep the realism of their film a priority, focussing instead on the normalcy of the São Paulo backdrop, as well as the mother-son bond that now becomes the centre of the story – an unconventional one, but one that is surprisingly touching nonetheless. They also turn this into a coming-of-age film of sorts, Ana’s now grown-up son (played by the brilliant Miguel Lobo) quietly drifting through life yet beginning to question why there are so many rules he must abide by. It is this touch of realism and the striking performances (especially from the consistently incredible Zuaa) that ensure this is nothing less than a cohesive whole, those two distinct parts of the film never feeling jarring or distancing, but rather just another part of what makes Good Manners such an intriguing, well-crafted film. That creeping atmosphere also fuses those two halves, the threat lingering in the background and keeping us on constant edge, while Rui Poças’ haunting imagery lends the São Paulo streets a chilling yet odd beauty that adds to the overall fairy tale vibe felt throughout.
It is unfortunate then that this subtlety is lost towards the end of the film, those darker hints and lingering feelings suddenly forgotten about in favour of the spectacular. It is a classic case of showing too much rather than leaving it to our imagination, and as a result parts of this become less impactful than they could, and should, have been. The ending in particular loses some of its poignancy because of this, but is nonetheless a surprisingly touching moment that is once again wholly unpredictable. The film suffers from pacing issues in this latter half too, Dutra and Rojas losing their well-crafted tension by rushing along with certain moments rather than pushing them to breaking point, which is what made the first part of their narrative so effective.
Still, the stranger, fantastical moments of Good Manners ensure this is one of the most enchanting, original films you’ll see this year, the fairy tale aesthetic making this a world you’ll want to visit again to catch all the hints and references you missed the first time around. Not a perfect film, but certainly one you won’t forget for a long time.