The kidnapping of a child is the trigger for the thriller ambitions of Fernando Coimbra’s A Wolf at the Door, another Brazilian attempt at producing a genre film that transcends its provenance. The kidnapping is the final act in a vicious love-triangle storyline, which is then told backward through the police-station testimonies of the child’s parents, Bernardo (Milhem Cortaz) and Sylvia (Fabiula Nascimento), and Rosa (Leandra Leal), the revengeful mistress who last picked up the little girl from school. Although Coimbra is mostly invested in mimicking the suspense aesthetics of high-quality American and European commercial fare, the film’s merits are actually in its peripheral intentions—specifically, in the way the film paints a portrait of heterosexual gender relations in Brazil as an always-volatile symbiosis between feminine hysteria and ruthless machismo.
This is exactly the world of iconic Brazilian soap operas, where men are unquestionably unfaithful horndogs and women spend their lives trying to catch them in the act, only to forgive them, even if they never ask for forgiveness, and to beg them to come back. But Coimbra is able to work from such territory in a less televisual way—that is, with the same familiar blueprint minus the glaring clichés. In A Wolf at the Door, the Brazilian household is a precarious sham one text message away from exploding. There’s no tenderness or affection, just bickering, suspicion, and pathological possessiveness. The anxiety of cheating haunts and consumes the lovers, turning them into enemies, detectives, even criminals. In the midst of such dysfunction, the couple’s child may indeed have to go literally missing in order to be remembered.
Although Brazilian cinema has a hard time ridding itself from the paradigms and affectations that govern its primetime soaps (from where it takes most of its actors, as is the case here), A Wolf at the Door alternates televisual chattiness with a sophisticated knack for composition. This is mostly when it chooses to survey a room instead of pushing the narrative forward in a pragmatic way. In such moments, the film echoes Chico Teixeira’s underrated Alice’s House, except that in Teixeira’s film the cheating husband offers indifference instead of literal violence. Coimbra’s more observational moments include a scene when Bernardo beats his lover Rosa right when you think he’s going to kiss her, and then forces her to repeat after him, “I want you to fuck me for the rest of my life.” She obliges with a seeming sense of pleasure. The camera is motionless, and all we’re left with are good acting and unexpected lines of dialogue. He tells her, “Well, too bad,” and leaves the room, only to eventually return.
In another moment, when the film is closer to domestic drama than timeworn mystery, Bernardo’s phone rings in the middle of the night and Sylvia keeps asking him who tried to call, but he refuses to check. It’s clearly a lover. They both know, but as long as there’s no irrefutable proof they can keep on playing their game. Sylvia lights up a cigarette and Bernardo complains about the smoke. Sylvia, in turn, complains that he’s trying to sleep holding his phone tight instead of her. The camera never moves. It’s a beautiful sequence, perhaps the most meaningful in the film, so much so that one wishes there didn’t have to be a kidnapping at all, or a long complicated story to be told. The violence sustaining the couple’s everyday life suffices. Everything else feels redundant or contrived.