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Film Review: ‘The Cannibal Club’

Dennis Harvey

Given the sharp rightward turn Brazilian politics has taken, “The Cannibal Club” can’t help but seem considerably more (ahem) biting than it did upon its premiere in the Rotterdam Film Festival a little over a year ago. Having a new president whose attitudes toward the underclasses are scarcely more enlightened than this horror-comedy’s protagonists certainly lends additional frisson to its fictive portrait of a wealthy elite literally eating the poor.

That heightened queasiness factor aside, however, Guto Parente’s eighth feature is a mixed bag: a diverting, stylish, but ultimately rather trite satire whose social critique and grand guignol aspects never quite come to a full boil. Uncork’d Entertainment is opening single-screen engagements in Los Angeles and San Francisco on March 1. On-demand release follows March 5.

Otavio (Tavinho Teixeira) and Gilda (Ana Luiza Rios) live in indolent luxury at their gated country home, he frying up steaks on the barbecue while she amuses herself making goo-goo eyes at the hunky pool boy. When hubby is supposedly away, the wife makes hay with the help, but their tryst is interrupted by an axe to his head — as Gilda fully expects. Afterward, Gilda and Otavio enjoy a romantic meal featuring fricassee du pool boy.

To Gilda’s annoyance, Octavio has a men-only outlet for this culinary taste: Borges (Pedro Domingues), his boss at a high-end security firm, also heads the titular club. At secret meetings, tuxedoed captains of industry and wealth watch various carnal acts, then make a meal of the unfortunate copulators. High-maintenance trophy-spouse Gilda is irked at missing out on such entertainment.

She’s rather sorry, however, to witness something she really shouldn’t have when the couple attend a lavish birthday party for Borges’ wife. Straying from the main event, she spies a different kind of transgression in the estate’s garage. When Otavio finds out, he’s horrified; another club member has just suffered a “terrible accident” for his supposedly loose tongue, and what Gilda saw could now get them both killed.

Meanwhile, the oft-quarrelsome marital duo need a new caretaker, and flip through the directory of an appropriate agency for some fresh, er, meat. They decide upon Jonas (Ze Maria), another handsome, darker-skinned peasant type desperate for work. He has the misfortune of being on the job — as well as on Gilda’s bed — when the story’s various violent threats come to a climactic intersection.

“The Cannibal Club” (which premiered at Rotterdam alongside Parente’s very different LGBT seriocomedy “My Own Private Hell”) is at its best when the political allegory is most explicit. At the birthday party, there’s jaded banter in which the most privileged citizens whine about the difficulties of living in a “Third World country.” At the club’s grisly supper, a toast is raised to the values of family, faith and work, and against those who would “make us a country of poors, delinquents, pederasts and filthy scum.” One wonders if President Bolsonaro would grasp that such material is meant as satire.

Despite its breezy air of arch wit, Parente’s script feels underdeveloped, more a promising concept than a satisfying exploitation of its potential. (Nor does that concept feel particularly fresh, having long since been milked by such ’80s midnight-movie faves as “Eating Raoul,” “Parents” and “Society.”) It’s all over too quickly, reaching a medium froth of mayhem and ironic comeuppance that doesn’t feel quite sufficient given the outre premise.

Still, the writer-director handles his ultimately somewhat underwhelming tale with a degree of panache. The film’s surface gloss amplifies the swank vacuity of its principal characters’ luxe lifestyles, as Lucas Barbi’s widescreen lensing provides one vista after another of expensively soulless “good taste,” abetted by savvy additional design contributions. The performances are aptly, expertly deadpan. Allowed to provide some overtly antic commentary on the action is Fernando Catatau’s original score, which strikes an attitude of warped lounge music, and is nicely complemented by choice preexisting tracks.

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