TIFF 2022 | Charcoal (Carolina Markowicz, Brazil/Argentina) — Platform

By Angelo Muredda

A corrupt deal with a mysterious nurse who brings death rather than life unravels a tightly wound family in Carolina Markowicz’s ambitious and sometimes inscrutable first feature, Charcoal, which is pitched somewhere between a fable, a comedy of errors, and a satire of Brazilian family values and faith as a refuge from material squalor. Set in a cramped home in the countryside, where husband Jairo (Rômulo Braga) and wife Irene (Maeve Jinkings) toil to produce the very charcoal that is prematurely killing them while their son Jean (Jean Costa) tends to his ailing grandfather in the dank quarters they share, the film is a tonally complex chamber drama about how quickly established roles break down when a fourth party, an exiled Argentinian drug lord, replaces the family elder in his lodgings under nefarious circumstances in exchange for financial compensation. 

A riff on the Teorema (1968) plot of a stranger disrupting a family’s long-established, unexamined rhythms through the sheer force of his presence, the film struggles to pay off some of its disparate social critiques, its shotgun blast-style satire firing a bit wide of the targets at times. The minimalist conceit and modest setting would likewise benefit from tighter pacing, as the slackness here gives the last act in particular the narrative wheel-spinning one might expect of a short film extended to feature length. When it’s landing its punches, though, as in the unsparing coda, Charcoal is mordantly funny stuff, unashamed to let the corrupted family at its centre be every bit as toxic as the fugitive they’re harbouring.