“If you want to buy in 2003, you have to pay off 2002,” says the store lady to José when he suggests putting the cost of groceries on his open tab. It’s one of many references in the story to the looming new year, filling the placid air of the Brazilian summer with a certain sticky discomfort. And it’s also spelling out loud the lingering sense of a reckoning that is perhaps coming for this entire upper middle-class family, at times crass and oblivious about both the people around them and their own place in a changing country. Except the reckoning never quite comes – or if it does, it can be swept under the rug together with the resentment that runs wild within the family. Maybe José knew it all along; after all, he did take home food for 2003 without ever settling that score for 2002.
Domingo, premiering in the Giornate degli Autori sidebar of the Venice Film Festival, is the latest from director Fellipe Barbosa, who gained exposure in Rotterdam and Cannes thanks to his first two films (Casa Grande and Gabriel and the Mountain). Joining him in the directorial chair this time is Clara Linhart, previously a prolific assistant director (in addition to Barbosa’s own Casa Grande, she worked on José Padilha’s Elite Squad and Sergio Andrade’s atmospheric Jonathas’ Forest among many others) and documentarist. Together they create a richly wrinkled and masterfully lived-in portrait of an extended group of relatives, coming together at the run-down yet still impressive family villa near Rio Grande do Sul to welcome the new year. This is not just any New Year’s Eve, either – it marks the beginning of President Lula’s eight years of government, for better or worse an iconic period in Brazilian history that upended the political landscape, promised social change from the ground up, and ended with incarceration of the former President on corruption charges.
That doesn’t matter in the here and now of January 1st, 2003, however. TV footage and sound-bites from Lula adorn the background of many a scene, but these people have more pressing concerns: a birthday dress for 15-year-old Val, kids experimenting with makeup, teens experimenting with sex, and exhausted adults trudging along hoping to make it to next year as quickly as possible. The queen of inter-family drama is without a doubt mater familias Laura, the original owner of the villa and cross-generational provocateur supreme. Itala Nandi is masterfully annoying in the role, with her wide-range attempts at manipulation (children, grandchildren, and most of all the domestic staff of the house) only marginally distracting from the insecurity within.
The way Barbosa and Linhart weave class conflict and social inequalities into the loopy and relaxed narrative never feels didactic: they lean into the idiosyncratic and absurd qualities that exist at the core of the familiar, and they consistently find it. Even an old cliché like the tennis instructor and the bored wife is repurposed here into a sad bit of fumbled middle-class grotesque. The painful inevitability of family life is also captured exquisitely, as exemplified by the signature camera movement that the directors return to again and again: a slow pan to reveal something that is already obvious, which creates a second or two of pure cringing anticipation for what lies ahead. Ultimately, the accumulation of bad blood and little squabbles should reach critical mass – and yet it never does. Domingo is built on the promise of endless and arbitrary finishing lines: the end of a week, the end of a year, the end of a political era. Perhaps the end of a generation. Certainly the end of a birthday party nobody can agree on. But the ancestral, lethargic sameness that gets passed down along this bloodline absorbs all of them, leading to a killer final scene in the mould of Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years. Lights go out, and a voice at the back shouts: “No one belongs to anyone”.