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The 3 Marias

Matthew Stern

The 3 Marias is uniquely conceived and visually scintillating.

The 3 Marias

Director: Aluisio Abranches
Cast: Marieta Severo, Julia Lemmertz, Maria Luisa Mendonca, Luiza Mariani, Carlos Vereza
Distributor: First Run
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Empire
First date: 2002
US DVD Release Date: 2005-04-26

It's no shock that, with such an idiosyncratic look and feel, The 3 Marias has become a cult classic in Brazil in the five years since its cinematic release. Set in the gang-addled Brazil of the ‘70s, the film uses tit-for-tat games of gang retribution as the backdrop for a highly stylized tale of revenge. Director Aluisio Abranches applies an arty lens both to the region's idiosyncratic landscape, the flourishes of horror that pop up throughout the movie, and pretty much everything else that appears on screen. The 3 Marias has the feel of a dark, art-house soap opera. It's a shame that this gore-punctuated melodrama, for all its cryptic biblical allusions, seems to treat its main metaphor like an afterthought.

The film opens with a scene set asymmetrically, unfolding in the distance against a windy, mountainous backdrop. An argument silently unfolds between an unnamed man and woman. The background music surges (baring a striking resemblance to that George Delerue-scored song that plays a painful number of times in Godard's Contempt.) The woman runs off, and the man drops a bundle of bright red roses on the ground.

A series of quick cuts move the story from the mountains to an urban center, where two dead bodies are found; one gutted, hanging by its neck, and the other lying on the ground with its eyes removed. These gore-laden scenes, accompanied by tinny, warped orchestra hits, are some of the most memorable in the film; they erupt on screen out of nowhere, and highlight Abranches' talent for framing shots to maximize discomfort. The use of strange angles and off-kilter timing on scenes that only last a few seconds, though, isn't limited to the movie's horrific moments; it drives the film’s fragmented narrative.

A third man is burned alive, and the film moves to a bright blue farmhouse surrounded by a cactus patch. It's the home of Filomena Capadócio (Marieta Severo,) the woman who was arguing on the mountain. Informed of the murdered male trio, her husband and two sons, she breaks out into a scream just as the film lapses into slow motion. The man with whom she argued on the mountain, it’s later revealed, is Firmino Santos Guerra (Carlos Vereza,) an ex-lover from 30 years earlier. Never having entirely gotten over being dumped, he took it upon himself to have his sons creatively execute all of Filomena’s male loved ones.

Realizing what has happened, Filomena delivers a litany of weird instructions to her three daughters, regarding how to properly face the grieving process. The titular trio of Marias is introduced, all clad in black, walking with a funeral procession, and are soon briefed on the way they're intended to avenge the deaths of their father and brothers. In a conversation around a dimly lit table, they're given their marching orders; to each find a particular hit-man and convince him to kill a specific one of the three murderers for each of them. Maria Pia (Luíza Mariani) inquires as to why they don’t just do the killing themselves, and mom replies, simply, that it’s not their “destiny”.

The film takes a turn for the fabulistic as each daughter seeks out her assigned hit-man, each who has a larger-than-life persona and a theological bent to his pathology. Maria Francisca (Julia Lemmertz) leaves to find Ze das Cobras, a lean, crazy looking bar-room sleazeball who, after reading the biblical tale of Adam and Eve, has a strong disdain for women and an ambiguous relationship with snakes; sometimes using them to kill, sometimes eating them (the more you think of this, the more layers of Freudian interpretation you notice.)

Maria Rosa (Maria Luisa Mendonca,) the pious one, is sent to employ Chief Tenorio, a small town cop and all around good recently injured in a righteous battle with a rabid dog. It's not quite clear why he's chosen as a hit-man. She asks him to act "as a saint", and go "beyond good and evil" to help work out the family vendetta.

Maria Pia, who looks like a character from The Matrix, heads to the local jail to convince Jesuino Cruz, a murderer known as "The Devil's Horse" (this probably sounds a lot more threatening in Portuguese) to do her bidding. Cruz is the most interesting, and the most comic book-esque of the three hit-men. A thick scar bisects his face, and he muses half-coherently about dichotomies, diadicisms, and slicing people in half with a chilling effectiveness that blows the average Law and Order franchise lunatic-of-the-week out of the water. Like the other hit-men, he freely and inexplicably quotes scripture like a Jesuit and agrees to the task, with some nudging and financial incentive, and heads out to slaughter one of Firmino’s sons.

Computer-generated travel montages weave together the three separate attempts at vengeance, none of which manage to go off without a hitch. Hungry and venomous snakes fail to find the correct mark, rabies runs its course, and psycho-killers prove untrustworthy. Maria, Maria, and especially Maria (the second one, the one who follows a guy into a dance club bathroom with a machete) end up getting their hands dirty.

Thus, the good guys (who are in this case, women), in order to dispense with the bad guys, hire the worse guys, end up themselves becoming the worst of them all (or at least comparable to the bad guys.) Despite the direct prescription from Filomena to avoid committing murder, each of the girls seals the deal, disproving their mother’s claim that their destiny was “not to kill”.

The valuable lesson that the young ladies learn is clearly that by indulging one’s vengeful impulse, one becomes no better than those whom one seeks vengeance upon. The impact of the lesson is lessened, though, by the fact that none of the characters are fleshed out enough to make their slide into murderous depravity seem all that tragic. Filomena offers a “what have we become” monologue that feels like a desperate dash to make sense of things in the final scene, and in order to really buy into it, you have to accept on some level that there’s a huge ethical difference between hiring a hit-man and just offing someone with your bare hands, and that’s a tough sell.

Concerns about the effectiveness of the film’s tragedian message aside, and even though the copious gore promised by the movie’s first few scenes doesn’t ever quite come to fruition, The 3 Marias is uniquely conceived and visually scintillating. The subtitles are frustratingly hard to read, but it doesn’t detract from the overall look and feel. It might even be worth digging through all the biblically-charged dialogue to see if there’s a more arcane way to make sense of the film’s trinities, triplicates, and trios.


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