What must we do — or refrain from doing — to participate in society? Good Manners doesn’t address this directly, as the filmmakers instead cultivate the detached, dreamy tone of a fable, but the question underpins the decisions of its characters in very serious ways. Conforming to social mores is not an easy option for our protagonists, and so they find themselves adrift in the urban wilderness of Sao Paulo. The topic of etiquette comes up once in a brief scene between the two leads, as one of them demonstrates the posture-exercise of putting a book on top of the head and walking delicately forward. She quickly fails, laughs it off, and the topic is abandoned, but their absence of social support hangs over the film like a curse.
Pregnant and estranged from her wealthy family, Ana (Marjorie Estiano) wants to hire a reliable and discrete nanny. Clara (Isabél Zuaa) applies, perpetually in between jobs and in bad need of rent, agreeing to work as maid and personal assistant until the child is born. There is a pronounced socio-economic chasm between the two women, but it quickly dawns on both that they are kindred outsiders, regardless of the trappings. Along the way, Clara begins to notice Ana’s peculiar dietary and sleep habits. The first half of the film explores their relationship and peculiarities until Ana gives birth to her child, and ultimately segues into an entirely different story.
The shift in the film is worth leaving unspoiled because it is very interesting. In fact, most of the decisions Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas make as filmmakers are interesting. From subtle character interactions to the film’s structure, the directors playfully subvert and realign expectations. Both lead actors are exceptional; Estiano finds pathos in her naive and spoiled Ana, and Zuaa offers tactful glimpses at the vulnerability underneath Clara’s projection of strength. Secondary characters are also uniformly strong and memorable.
This is not a film of tension or propulsive mystery; it rather draws you in to exalt in its intimate world. The filmmakers have created a beautiful and haunting version of Sao Paulo, populated with vivid personalities. Who needs tension when you have wonder? Fairy tale conventions and imagery crop up throughout. In fact, three times the filmmakers employ a diegetic choral lullaby. At first it seems a jarring and questionable decision, but the invocation of musical fantasy provides a fascinating juxtaposition to the more grounded character work. By the end of the first lullaby, the choice feels justified.
To fully classify Good Manners as a fairy tale, however, would undersell its subtly and realism. The film is very successful at finding the fantastical in character-based reality, as the simple class dichotomy between Ana and Clara invokes countless Grimm tales — but it is sincere and realistic. Ana lives in a pastel-dollhouse-condo overlooking an unreal cityscape. She has a digital fireplace, and given practical blind spots and pregnancy cravings, has a refrigerator full of bags of meat. They go to a shopping mall inside a dreamy glass pyramid. This all feels strange, but never unnatural.
The odd structure and unclear trajectory of Good Manners occasionally drag the film down. In its second, more allegorical half, the film inducts itself into a fantasy tradition that it is then bound by, and though Dutra and Rojas continue to gleefully subvert convention, the story takes on an inevitability that is fitting of the fairy tale genre. The fact that a character arc mirrors that embrace of tradition feels entirely coincidental. There is always imperfection in good experimentation, and ultimately Good Manners showcases exuberant filmmaking from thoughtful people.
Fantastic Fest runs September 21st – 28th. Visit the festival’s official website.