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Tremendous thriller has family looking after mafia interloper

Brazilian director Carolina Markowicz won awards left, right and centre for her touching 2018 short film The Orphan (O Órfão), about a queer teenage boy suddenly placed in an unfamiliar family. Her feature debut, Charcoal, once again centres around an outsider forcibly placed in the heart of family, but this time the algebra of sympathy is much more complex – and the threat of violence adds an unquantifiable extra variable.

In rural Brazil, Irene (Maeve Jinkings) holds her struggling nuclear family together as best she can. Her husband Jairo (Rômulo Braga) earns money seasonally burning charcoal, but when he’s out of work he spends what little he has on booze. The couple’s nine-year-old son Jean (Jean de Almeida Costa, a real find) is a sweet kid who shares a bedroom with his bedridden grandfather Firmino (Benedito Alves), who has had a stroke and can no longer walk, talk or breathe without additional oxygen.

One day, instead of the usual district nurse who comes to change Firmino’s oxygen tank, a healthcare worker named Juracy (Aline Marta Maia) shows up. Immediately sizing up the family and the weight of the burden Irene in particular is carrying, Juracy makes a modest proposal: why not “replace” poor old Firmino with someone who can help the family out financially? In other words, she proposes euthanising the old man and then taking in a special sort of lodger: an Argentinian crime “jefe” named Miguel (César Bordón) who has faked his own death and needs to lie low for a while. Juracy, it seems, is seriously connected and no ordinary healthcare worker.

Nor is Miguel your average criminal overlord. By turns charming and peevish, he exerts a strange fascination over all three remaining members of the family in different ways, like Terence Stamp in Pasolini’s Teorema, or the titular visitor in Joe Orton’s play Entertaining Mr Sloane. Even little Jean is keen to please him and, in one hilarious-horrifying scene with his school principal, we find out that Jean has been caught trying to buy cocaine. If it had been marijuana, that would have been another matter; but cocaine is definitely a no-no for nine-year-olds.

Eliciting uniformly confident, credible performances from professional and non-professional actors alike, Markowicz maintains a tight grip on the tone, keeping it just on the biting point between black comedy and agonising suspense. She builds a layered portrait of the larger community around the family, too, from inquisitive, prying neighbours to complacent priests who don’t really want to know what’s troubling members of their flock. Amid such a strong ensemble, Jinkings is the standout performer, incarnating a woman full of half-crushed dreams that could spark up with the slightest brush of hope.

- Leslie Felperin, THE GUARDIAN