Life, politics and family gatherings can all be pretty shambolic so it is no surprise that the Brazilian drama Domingo, which explores all three, is somewhat messy, too. This new film from Gabriel and the Mountain director Fellipe Barbosa, who here co-directs with Mountain’s assistant director, Clara Linhart, might have a sprawling cast and an abundance of small subplots, but the entire enterprise is more or less held together by the fact it almost all takes place over the course of a single day in and around a single location: the dilapidated mansion of a large, land-owning family. This Venice Days selection doesn’t have either the storytelling finesse or cinematic mastery of some of the other recent portraits of Brazilian society, such as Neighboring Sounds or The Second Mother, though this is partly by design and shouldn’t hamper Domingo’s festival potential too much. However, its commercial future beyond home turf will likely be more modest than that of those titles.
This is, for all intents and purposes, a period film, set entirely on New Year’s Day in 2003. Not only was it the first day of a new year but one could argue it was the start of a new era, as former metal worker Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva became the country’s first socialist president on that day, a momentous event that many in the country’s upper class eyed with deep suspicion and, perhaps, a sense of melancholy passing.
Broadcasts of his inauguration ceremony here form the backdrop of a family gathering in a country domain near the Uruguayan border that has clearly seen better times and that, given the fact they are landed gentry in a country now ruled by a socialist, might never see their estate flourish again like in the olden days. (Locals and those up-to-date on world events will be aware that Lula is currently serving a prison sentence for money laundering and corruption after turning Brazil’s economy around in spectacular fashion, creating opportunities for the working classes, though not at all to the detriment of the upper class.)
Domingo opens with the arrival of family matriarch Laura (Itala Nandi) and her younger son, Miguel (Ismael Caneppele), to the crumbling manor now inhabited by her eldest, Nestor (Augusto Madeira), and his family. Nestor’s second wife, Bete (Camila Morgado), is a rowdy hedonist who hates her mother-in-law, while their cute boy Mateus (Joao Henrique Domingues), is oblivious to much of what happens; he’s mostly concerned with filling up his water pistol in the home’s aquarium. Mateus’ half-siblings, from Dad’s first marriage, are the horny teenager Marcelo (Joao Pedro Prates) and his sister, Valentina (Manu Morelli), who is preparing for the big party for her upcoming 15th birthday.
Just like his grandma, Marcelo likes to boss around the domestic employee, Ines (Silvana Silvia). Unlike Laura, however, he also leers at Ines’ shy but generally helpful teen daughter, Rita (Maria Victoria Valencia). The elderly and frail Jose (Clemente Viscaino), meanwhile, has worked for the family for so many decades, Laura suggests it must now be time for him to retire and leave. However, the suggestion feels less fueled by a desire for heartless, capitalist efficiency once it is revealed the duo may have had a secret romance but Laura now doesn’t want anything to do with him anymore, though it is not clear whether this is for sentimental or other reasons.
Also gathered at the estate for the planned New Year’s Day alfresco barbecue and champagne lunch are a second family, comprising the highly pregnant Eliana (Martha Nowill), her husband, Eduardo (Michael Wahrmann) and their kids, the teenager Carlos (Francesco Fochesato), who will discover a homemade sex tape with Marcelo, Fernanda (Cecilia Soares) and little Diego (Donald Marshall). The latter likes to dress up in women’s clothes, much to the enjoyment of Valentina and the chagrin of Diego’s macho father.
The screenplay, credited to Gabriel and the Mountain co-writer Lucas Paraizo, is stuffed with great, natural dialogue and some scenes, such as the conversation little Diego has with his Dad after being caught in a dress, avoid histrionics or melodrama and thus feel lifelike and true, an impression that’s reinforced by the natural performances. But with such a large cast of characters, it’s clearly impossible to get to know all of them very intimately. Instead, we get little snippets of conversations, a general sense of family dynamics and a lot of sequences that are burdened with having to do double duty as both believable behavior and examples of larger trends in Brazilian society.
The moment in which Valentina begs Rita to try on her ridiculously expensive festa de debutantes dress she got from Grandma, for example, is clearly more about unhealthy class relations in Brazil than about two girls trying on an outfit. To drive home this particular point, Valentina “innocently” suggests Rita should ask her mother, the family’s help, to get one of the fully rhinestoned dress for her, too, because she looks cute in it. Thankfully, Rita and Ines don’t just suffer through it all, with Rita taking care of Marcelo in an unexpected way and Ines putting an unanticipated end to the party. Mother and daughter also very symbolically leave the estate together at the end of the day, a move that doesn’t ring true for them as characters — since there’s no sense that they were already this close to finally packing up and leaving — but which speaks to the imagination on a more abstract level, as a domestic help and her teenager leave their home where they lived and worked on the day a socialist became president.
The arrival of a handsome tennis instructor (the incredibly named Chay Suede) suggests Paraizo has seen Pasolini’s Teorema perhaps once too many times, as libidos start to explode left and right in farcically large quantities. Is the film trying to suggest all people finally are animals and instincts will take over? Is there not much else to do in Rio Grande do Sul than be promiscuous? Or are the filmmakers trying to combine elements of sociohistorical commentary with the plot mechanics of a sex farce? Constantly asking questions such as these is, of course, the risk of films such as this one, where every element of the story could possibly also carry a larger meaning.
What to make of the title, for example, which literally means Sunday and refers to the fact Laura thinks it is Sunday though it is finally established it is Saturday (the suggestion being that rich people do no know what day it is because they don’t have to work, like their blue-collar brethren). The idea is something that could work even if in this particular case, New Year’s Day in 2003 was a Wednesday, which thus begs the question whether we are dealing with artistic license or a curious mistake?
Domingo is thus, well, shambolic, a story full of loose ends. This finally feels very appropriate for a film set at a key moment in Brazilian history that, at least at the time, felt hugely uncertain and disruptive. Cinematographer Louise Botkay helps suggest this in her visuals as well, opting for static, almost stately shots outdoors, where time passes yet nothing seems to change, and handheld camerawork indoors that stays close to the characters, suggesting their agitation, subjectivity and limited world view.
Production companies: Republica Pureza, Gamarosa, Damned Films, Globo Filmes, Canal Brasil, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Itala Nandi, Camila Morgado, Augusto Madeira, Martha Nowill, Michael Wahrmann, Ismael Caneppele, Silvana Silvia, Clemente Viscaino, Chay Suede, Manu Morelli, Maria Vitoria Valenca, Joao Pedro Prates, Francesco Fochesato, Cecilia Soares, Donald Marshall, Joao Henrique Domingues
Directors: Clara Linhart, Fellipe Barbosa
Screenplay: Lucas Paraizo
Producers: Marcello Ludwig Maia, Yohann Cornu
Director of photography: Louise Botkay
Production designer: Rafael Faustini
Costume designer: Paula Stroeher
Editor: Waldir Xavier
Sales: Films Boutique
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)
In Brazilian Portuguese
No rating, 95 minutes