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Charcoal review – a family takes in a mob boss in an accomplished crime debut

Though a little devoid of incident, strong writing and performances make for an immersive slice of working class Brazilian life

Bookending Carolina Markowicz’s accomplished, if a little drawn-out, feature debut Charcoal is a song on a local religious radio station about how, no matter how dark and treacherous the night, one must keep one’s door and heart open. It’s a sentiment that is put to the test throughout Charcoal, as a working-class Brazilian family accept an offer to harbour a mob boss who has faked his own death, keeping him hidden until the heat dies down, paid handsomely for their trouble but tearing their family bonds apart in the process.

This gangster is Miguel (Cesar Bordon), and his very arrival at the house is fraught with tension and guilt – to make room for him, matriarch Irene (Maeve Jinkings) has had to euthanise her bed-bound, terminally ill father and dispose of his body in one of the charcoal ovens that the family make their living from. From here, with organised crime suddenly setting up shop in this rural home, you might expect Charcoal to enter thriller territory, but’s a far slower and quieter burn than that.

Markowicz is more interested in how this interloper starts to affect the family structure, right down to its foundations. Miguel is hardly a bruising presence, mostly just bored and trying to make the best of his situation, slowly but surely charming Irene and her young son Jean (Jean de Almeida Costa). Irene’s husband Jairo (Romulo Braga) is drunken and disinterested, so a new ‘real man’ in the house excites her even as the situation disgusts her.

Things are similarly complicated for young Jean, remarkably well played by child actor Costa, who manages to completely sell the brattiness of a 9 year old boy without becoming insufferable. He likes having someone around to play football with and get bundles of cash from, but is clearly poisoned by the obvious immorality of the situation, his behaviour at both school and home deteriorating. Markowicz’s script is very good at teasing out these contradictions and confusions, aided by a very solid cast – you can really feel the weight of these characters’ lives on their shoulders.

With that said, Charcoal can also be a bit of a patience-tester, often seeming to go in circles and featuring minimal incident – the closest we really get to a set-piece is one of Irene’s neighbours getting a little too nosey when she comes over for coffee and biscuits. A cleverly cheeky ending expands on the moral corruption at the core of this tale in an amusing but dark way, but you will have to surrender to the slow rhythms of Charcoal to get much out of it.

On top of the dense, intimate writing, Markowicz also proves a confident visual director, though many of the most interesting compositions and beautiful colours are front-loaded, with the style getting more conventional as the plot marches on. As a slice of Brazilian life, Charcoal is nicely unconventional and unpredictable, bucking the expectations inherent to its premise and taking its characters down strange emotional paths, but it might be a little too quiet for its own good.

Charcoal is released in UK cinemas on 10 March.

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