The Vicious Family Circle
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“Alice’s House” is a messy domestic drama that applies the vérité aesthetics typical in Brazil’s national cinema to a crass, telenovela-worthy tale of sex and adultery.
Alice (Carla Ribas) is a middle-aged working mother in an unremarkably middle-class household populated by generational types. Her vision-impaired elderly mother (Berta Zemel) slaves over a multitude of thankless chores, yet always unwittingly gets in everyone’s way. Alice’s deadbeat husband, Lindomar (Zécarlos Machado), is a heartless buffoon who carries on an affair with a neighbor’s teenage daughter and tirelessly campaigns to dump his mother-in-law in a nursing home. The family’s eldest son, Lucas (Vinicius Zinn), is a career soldier who moonlights as a gay hustler. Middle child Edinho (Ricardo Vilaça) is a kleptomaniac who robs grandma blind. Junior (Felipe Massuia), the youngest son, is a mama’s boy struggling through puberty.
Although the film’s title would suggest that Alice is the protagonist, she does not exactly elicit anyone’s sympathy. Lindomar’s clandestine infidelity doesn’t seem so morally reprehensible once Alice embarks on her own secret affair with her first love, Nilson (Luciano Quirino), who is now the moneyed husband of a regular customer at the beauty parlor where Alice works. When the movie inevitably reaches Alice’s climactic meltdown, it leaves viewers cold. In fact, the grandmother is the only character here for whom you might feel sorry.
If its plot synopsis reads more like a litany of character descriptions, that’s because “Alice’s House” offers little else. Viewers are never privy to what makes any of these people tick, and the collage of their idiosyncrasies is no substitute for a real plot. These personality traits are often so arbitrary that the film doesn’t bother keeping track of them. When Lucas and Edinho seem to switch personalities halfway through, you can no longer — nor would you care to — tell which one of them is Junior’s bully and which is his protector. It might seem astounding that the film’s four credited screenwriters collectively have come up with so little, but then, such is often the case when multiple writers attempt to create singular human characters.
Director and co-screenwriter Chico Teixeira has honed a background in documentary filmmaking, but he isn’t able to use that to his advantage here. “Alice’s House” brings to mind far superior efforts by the Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel, who uses similarly unflinching fly-on-the-wall techniques, but also crafts three-dimensional characters and studied, fully lived-in spaces with cracked paint on the walls, humidity in the air, and sweaty bodies lounging in deck chairs. By contrast, Mr. Teixeira’s effort to define his characters seems contrived.