Review: Toll (Carolina Markowicz)

“The film’s power lies in pitting multi-faceted contrasts against each other, and it maintains its courage to expose those truths occurring behind closed doors, when no one else is watching.”

In recent times Brazilian cinema has been unafraid to portray the unflinching, gritty reality of life on its streets. Such insights have produced compelling dramas such as City of God, Bacurau and 7 Prisoners, each providing a juxtaposition with coming-of-age narratives and village life. Entering this highly praised canon is Carolina Markowicz’s sophomore feature Toll, which depicts the life of a toll worker (Suellen, played by Maeve Jinkings) who unwittingly becomes embroiled in petty crime – Markowicz exposes Suellen’s misguided bid, as a mother, to resolve her family issues by controversial means. Compelling and impressive, Toll has a lot to unpack as it tackles problematic themes and highlights Markowicz’s acute talent to produce a relatable drama. Markowicz was honoured as TIFF Emerging Talent at the 2023 TIFF Awards as a recognition of her directorial flair, which is emphasised in Toll’s riveting nature. Additionally, Toll was one of the six films on Brazil’s pre-list of nominees for International Film for the 2024 Oscars.

Whilst Toll embraces the industrial background of Cubatão, with its factory landscapes and Suellen’s confined workplace of a highway toll booth, it forms a unique blend. Toll’s focus on its human interest stories ensures the film cannot be designated as a stereotypical kitchen sink drama. The camera remains distant and static, observing as cars enter the toll booth and Suellen leans out to greet them. Those interactions are soulless and merely transactional. The difference injected is in Markowicz’s decision for the camera to remain still, silently observing Suellen’s microcosm in the booth. This deliberately provides both an immersive and claustrophobic experience. Equally, it is challenging to avoid becoming a voyeur personally entangled with Suellen and her sensation of ennui from the day-to-day monotony of working life. Markowicz’s employment of such a device is striking and reveals an ambition for the human sentiments to be exposed fully and in all their messy glory throughout the film’s runtime.

Markowicz’s refusal to employ euphemisms extends to the scenes between Suellen and her son in their home environment and to scenes of Suellen’s love life. Again, there are no delicate gestures as Suellen exerts tough love towards her son Tiquinho (an empathetic Kauan Alvarenga), which may be reflective of her working-class environs. Markowicz, however, does not proffer this as an excuse for the character and makes no apologies for Suellen’s behaviour, a continuation of the realistic aesthetic of her portrayal. Thus the audience’s engagement with Suellen’s plight will be subject to their own interpretation. Suellen’s flawed perspective is that Tiquinho’s flamboyant online persona means that he needs saving or converting, and so she enters murky moral territory, having devised a get-rich-quick scheme utilising her workplace to pay for conversion therapy for Tiquinho.

Toll remains as bleak as the grainy depiction of its industrial settings bathed in a continuous grey and dark colour grading. Suellen becomes desperate and more deeply embroiled in a criminal underworld under the pretext of the end justifying the means, which aligns with the grey surroundings and a reduced moral compass. Markowicz also submerges audiences more deeply in Suellen’s world, providing a successful in-depth character analysis from afar with subtlety and without judgement. As such, audiences are invited to extend sympathy towards both Suellen and Tiquinho and their differing world views. The scenes are slow paced, the dialogue may be minimal, but this allows the cinematography’s long angles to speak volumes. A tense atmosphere also pervades given the high stakes for Suellen, which Markowicz has carefully built up. Toll realistically tackles these controversial subjects buried within the religious conversion therapy in which Suellen and others of Brazilian conservative culture have faith.

Markowicz’s lens equally peers into both sides of a fractious mother-son relationship which teeters on the brink of being irreparably broken. Jinkings convinces as Suellen, continuously seeing flaws in Tiquinho, who refuses to conform and simply likes singing karaoke songs online. However, Markowicz ratchets up this acute notion of a mother’s sense of shame projected on her son and the ensuing conflict between conservatism and modernity, which remains a thrilling watch.

Toll should break new ground for international cinema with its acute, compelling character study and powerful examination of Brazilian political ideologies. The film’s power lies in pitting multi-faceted contrasts against each other, and it maintains its courage to expose those truths occurring behind closed doors, when no one else is watching. Toll‘s appeal is further enhanced by stellar acting from both Jinkings and Alvarenga, as they bring nuance to a hard-hitting storyline by injecting darkly comedic moments alongside the film’s brutality. Toll also takes the time to highlight essential human rights as, within Tiquinho’s tale, it broaches the subject of the controversial Brazilian Court ruling in 2017 to permit conversion therapy. Whilst this film touches on problematic and poignant subjects, it willingly serves as a springboard to illustrate varying levels of innate hypocrisy within societies unwilling to change. Undoubtedly, Markowicz has delivered an impactful film that will provide a voice for those affected.