In the first scene of Good Manners, a black woman, Clara (Isabél Zuaa), is instructed by a doorman’s disembodied voice to take a service elevator up to the 15th floor of an apartment building. She’s arrived for a job interview to be a babysitter—or rather, a jack-of-all-trades type of maid who’s expected to do a bit of everything, as the very pregnant owner of one apartment, Ana (Marjorie Estiano), casually tells her. The odds are against Clara, who has no CV, no references, and has never taken care of children before. Clara’s demeanor is also much humbler than—and her skin much darker than that of—the savvy super nanny-esque candidate who walks out of the apartment right before Clara walks in, and their crossing of paths is a kind of split-second encounter between the artisanal Brazil of yore and the new, unapologetically fascist Brazil that’s the norm since the country’s 2016 coup d’état: leaner, meaner, and fluent in corporate speak.
From this opening sequence onward the audience is very much aware of Good Manners as a film so conscious of its Brazilianness that it could only be courting non-Brazilian eyes. Several recent films, to different degrees of success, have self-consciously offered up the slave-like relations that continue to banally prevail in Brazil as film-festival bait: Fellipe Barbosa’s Casa Grande, Anna Muylaert’s The Second Mother, and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds. Yet there’s something distinctly ominous about Clara entering into the home of a bourgeois white woman who will soon give birth to a bourgeois white baby—or so we think. No matter the careful nature of her tiptoeing, Clara’s arrival in Ana’s world feels like an invasion. She suggests a ghostly relic from a Brazil prior to the booming Lula years, when misery was too great to be couched in euphemisms and maid agencies—a time when the bourgeoisie had yet to start complaining about how difficult it was to hire domestic help because of campaigns for employee benefits.
In Good Manners, Ana seems to welcome the somber nature of Clara’s presence, hiring her based on mere gut feeling. Clara does everything for her new employer, from getting groceries to accompanying her to the doctor like a father-to-be, from zipping up her ankle boots to even serving as a selfie partner while sitting on her lap. They quickly develop an increasingly erotic relationship involving lots of sleepwalking on Ana’s part and culminating in the birth of, yes, a white child, but one who sometimes turns into a hungry werewolf whenever there’s a full moon. And as soon as the child is born, the film surrenders to this plot twist so completely that the whole thing becomes an unwittingly campy affair of ridiculous proportions.
The trouble is that though co-directors Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra are bold to derail what initially seems like yet another cinematic instrumentalization of Brazilian class-racial relations, they’re unable to subvert one of Brazilian cinema’s worst stylistic habits: a certain mix of stiff soap operatic acting and formulaic Hollywood mise-en-scène that’s devoid of structural experimentation. It’s a moldy copy of the copy of the copy of what Brazilians may have thought a proper film should look like in the 1980s, after binging solely on the most unoriginal of American cinema for so long.
In Good Manners, the camera never keeps up with the supposed waywardness of the story, straitjacketing its dissident elements to death. Everything is neatly framed and ultimately clear. Children all look like innocent, if not idiotic, cherubs auditioning for a television commercial. And apart from the main characters, everyone is cartoonishly quirky, from Ana’s neighbors to the area’s poor people. The werewolf child is effectively turned into a one-dimensional and literal monster more akin to the fantasy excursions of Brazilian televisual fare than a thought-provoking Svankmajer-like allegory.
A sleepwalking scene involving the breaking of a cat’s neck followed by Ana eating the animal raw, blood dripping all over her nightgown, feels particularly gratuitous and heavy-handed. Good Manners also features random animation scenes and parenthetical musical sequences in what feels like a multi-pronged attempt at provocation, a rebellion of surfaces that never quite reaches, or emanates from, the underpinning roots of its fable.