Home Video Hovel: A Wolf at the Door by Craig Schroeder
It’s been a rough week and a half for people who are carrying on extramarital affairs. It seems the initial Ashley Madison doxxing was only the beginning, as a second wave of documents unveiled even more philanderers. If the Ashley Madison dump (or general decency) wasn’t enough to dissuade you from engaging in a secret tryst, perhaps Fernando Coimbra’s A Wolf At the Door will. Released in Brazil two years ago, A Wolf at the Door—Coimbra’s debut feature film—is a morality tale, set in Rio de Janeiro, about the dangers of foolin’ around without your spouse’s knowledge or consent. At times it’s quite effective, but it’s marred by a script that would rather emphasize the spectacle rather than the people at the story’s core.
Coimbra wastes no time immersing the audience into the film’s central tension. When Sylvia (Fabiula Nascimento) picks her daughter, Clara (Isabella Ribas), up from daycare, she discovers the child has been taken by someone claiming to be a friend of the family. Sylvia immediately notifies the police, prompting an investigation which reveals an extramarital affair between Sylvia’s husband, Bernando (Milhem Cortaz), and Rosa (Leandra Leal), a young woman living in Rio de Janeiro with her elderly grandparents. As Sylvia, Bernando and Rosa reveal more about their lives and marital struggles, the pieces surrounding Clara’s abduction begin to assemble (and often disassemble).
A Wolf at the Door boasts an entire menagerie of wonderful, lived-in performances. The heart of the film rests with each of its principles, who are all astounding. But it’s Leandra Leal, as Rosa, who keeps the blood circulating when the film itself can’t keep pace. Though Milhem Cortaz and Fabiula Nascimento are great, their characters are far less dynamic. Cortaz’s Bernardo is a ruthless misogynist whose motivations are entirely selfish, while Nascimento’s Sylvia is a sympathetic character, victimized by her husband’s treatment of her and again by whoever stole her child. But Leal’s Rosa has many more shades of grey, shades that Leal is able to accentuate perfectly. The best scenes in the film are the sex scenes, or more specifically the scenes leading up to the sex, which mostly consist of wordless communication between Bernardo and Rosa, as they weigh their desires against the effects it will have on both of their lives. These aren’t visually powerful scenes—in fact Coimbra’s best decision as a writer and director is to remove most of the dialogue and allow these scenes to unfold silently in front of a static camera—but Cortaz and Leal’s subtle performances in these moments are beautiful.
Arranged around a cheap, boring and choppy framing device, A Wolf at the Door is only as good as its performances. As the central characters are questioned about the kidnapping, the film’s actual story is told in flashbacks as they are revealed to the police. It’s not detrimental to the film, but there’s very little dynamism to this hackneyed (and, in this case, needless) narrative tool. And this framing device eventually begins to devalue the film’s whodunnit-thriller elements. Multiple times characters say something to the effect of “Okay, now I’ll tell you the truth”, followed by a hard cut into a flashback sequence only to uncover a minor revelation. After a few of these, the announcement of a forthcoming reveal carries little emphasis with the audience. Eventually, Coimbra’s screenplay conditions the viewer to feel disappointed as it constantly uses melodramatic techniques to reveal minor plot points; when major revelations are finally disclosed, the accompanying bite isn’t nearly as ferocious as it could have been.
But perhaps the screenplay’s most egregious error is failing to understand the film’s driving force: its characters. The lead trio are the most engaging parts of the film (again, the film is worth watching to see how these actors equip themselves); but the film’s third act and finale veer hard towards brutality and sensationalism, abandoning the subtle character arcs that made the film so watchable to begin with. In the end, what’s presented is a third act that relegates its characters to shallow plot devices in favor of turning the film into a made-for-TV caliber movie about unrequited love and betrayal.