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‘Loveling’ Film Review: Brazilian Drama Examines Class, Family Conflicts

Sundance 2018: Working-class parents send their child off to pro sports and must contemplate what comes next for the family

Director Gustavo Pizzi wastes no time opening up the intimate and economical “Loveling” to its audience. The film is not alienating; it does not obfuscate its intentions. Pizzi knew what he wanted to make, and what he has made is a touching yarn about the pangs of familial maturation.

Set on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Irene (Karine Teles, “The Second Mother”) is essentially a domestic superhero. On top of raising four boys, she’s letting her recently divorced sister (Adriana Esteves) crash while her husband Klaus (Otávio Müller) struggles with some financial woes. Oh, and she’s in the process of finally receiving her high school diploma. Adulthood was never supposed to be easy, but Irene is uncertain whether it was supposed to be this hard.

Discontent within the household is visible within every frame. Dinners and chores tend to descend into intolerable passive aggression before erupting into all-out verbal wars. Pizzi deftly captures the volatility of this situation.

Then, suddenly, their lives change when Fernando (Konstantinos Sarris), the eldest son, announces that he’s been recruited by a professional handball team in Germany. He’s set to leave in three weeks. Irene is in shock. “Three weeks,” she yells. “I thought it would be next year.” Big moves have a tendency to happen both unexpectedly and swiftly. For Irene, it’s too unexpected. Shocked by Fernando’s decision, Irene and the rest of the family are forced to come to terms with what’s ahead.

This series of events allows “Loveling” to ask (and sometimes answer) complex questions with a poetic simplicity. How do a mother and son grapple with the separation after years of familial hibernation? How does a child avoid disappointing his parents?

Fernando’s primary problem is one of success. This opportunity to play professional handball is the American equivalent of receiving a scholarship to play basketball at a D-1 school. Nothing is black and white. Yes, there’s joy in this remarkable moment–a chance for a kid to actualize his dreams. “Loveling” asks, “But at what cost?”

Irene and Klaus are grappling with his (and their) uncertain future, and it’s here Pizzi has tapped into an issue that transcends borders. Fernando’s conundrum is one of class: His achievement means leaving home and family. It means sacrifice and compromise and heartache. It’s not that his parents don’t want him to flourish; they’re just concerned about what may happen in their own lives without him.

The proceedings are bolstered by Pizzi’s impressive aesthetic vision. Vibrant and potent, “Loveling” (originally titled “Benzinho” in Brazil) occasionally plays like an intensified stage play. There’s a theatrical nature to the presentation. The sets look contained, almost homespun. Beyond the words exchanged between characters, it’s the setting that cements the film. It grounds Pizzi’s story in a way that feels authentic and alive.

“Loveling” leaves us in a spot you may not expect, or maybe it’s completely predictable. That will depend largely on the viewer’s personal family experience with distance and one’s own family. What’s clear is that there’s roadmap for parenthood, no algorithm to tell you the right or wrong way to raise a child.

If we’re to buy into Pizzi’s worldview, then we must accept that most people do the best they can with the tools they have. And sometimes that’s enough.