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Original title: Quincas Berro d’Água

D: Sérgio Machado / 101m

Cast: Paulo José, Mariana Ximenes, Marieta Severo, Vladimir Brichta, Flavio Bauraqui, Luis Miranda, Frank Menezes, Irandhir Santos

When you think about it, there are hundreds of thousands of English language movies to choose from, with thousands more being added each year. But there are even more foreign language movies, and picking one to watch can be daunting. Do you keep it safe by seeing foreign language movies that are awards winners, such as Toni Erdmann (2016), or do you opt for pot luck and take a corresponding chance? Taking the second option can be a reward in itself, and if you choose to see The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell, an adaptation of the novella, The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray (1959) by Jorge Amado, then that choice will definitely be well made.

The plot concerns Quincas Wateryell (José), an old man whose friends have planned a surprise birthday party for him. But Quincas goes and does something unexpected: he misses the party and promptly dies (his first death). His body is found the next morning, and his family – his daughter Vanda (Ximenes), and son-in-law Leonardo (Brichta) – are contacted. While the news of her father’s death is obviously upsetting, there is another reason why the news is unwelcome: Quincas isn’t his real name, it’s Joaquim Soares da Cunha, and he disgraced his family by walking out on them to become a vagabond alcoholic. Having changed his name, only a handful of people are aware of his connection to Vanda, and she wants to keep it that way. Early preparations for the funeral are made, and some of Quincas’ friends – Curió (Menezes), Pé de Vento (Miranda), Pastinha (Bauraqui), and Cabo Martim (Santos) – hold a late night vigil over Quincas’ corpse.

The four men reminisce about the times they spent with Quincas, and they decide to give him what they regard as a proper send off: they take him for one last jaunt through town, going to the places they used to frequent, and treat it all as one big farewell party. Their intentions are simple, and the rest of the people who knew Quincas all join in, including his “girlfriend”, a club singer called Manuela (Severo). However, their having taken Quincas’ body is soon discovered, and the police become involved. It’s not long before they’re arrested and taken into custody, along with Quincas’ body. A hastily put together diversion allows the four friends (and Quincas) to escape from the police station, and they head for the docks where they plan to take him for one last boat trip. But a storm intervenes, and while the four friends, and Manuela, struggle to keep themselves afloat, Quincas’ final resting place suddenly seems more likely to be a watery one than one underground.

When Amado’s novella was first published, it was well received due to its indictment of Brazil’s class-ridden society, and The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell retains much of that original recrimination, though it becomes more of a comedic issue than a dramatic one. Vanda receives the news of her father’s death while in the company of two friends, and at first her shock is a natural reaction to such unexpected news. But it’s not long before she perceives her social standing as being under threat, and she takes steps to ensure her father, Joaquim, and Quincas, aren’t connected in any way. The same is true of her husband, Leonardo, who supports the fabrication that he ran off with the daughter of an Italian Comendatore and hasn’t been seen since. This stands him in good stead at work as well, with his colleagues taking more notice of him than before. Machado, working from his own script, starts off by making the couple unfeeling and duplicitous, but in a comedic light, as they’re unable to hide their conflicting emotions and their behaviour borders on being inappropriate. Even when Quincas’ relationship to them becomes more and more well known, they still can’t help themselves, and resort to misplaced pride to maintain their reputation in the local community.

What’s clever about Machado’s adaptation, though, is that he doesn’t continue with this attitude, and by the movie’s end, Vanda is a completely different person, wiser perhaps, and definitely changed, and free of the social insecurities she had before. How Machado achieves this is equally clever, and psychologically quite astute. He’s helped by a terrific performance by Ximenes, who provides each step of Vanda’s character arc with convincing details and honest emotional reactions. Less successful is Leonardo’s role in everything, as the longer the movie goes on, the less he’s involved, and he disappears from the final half an hour altogether. By then, of course, the focus is on getting Quincas to the boat trip, and Machado has to sacrifice tying up some of his script’s loose ends in favour of a dramatic denouement.

Along the way though, Machado achieves a lot of mileage out of Quincas’ “night out” with his friends. Taking a peek at the social underclass in Salvador da Bahia gives the director a chance to provide a colourful glimpse into a world of tradition and superstition, and which has a pronounced indifference to more conventional social practices (as evidenced by the religious ritual that Vanda dismisses as unnecessary because her family – not Quincas it’s important to note – are Catholics). It’s a lively, expressive environment, where people wear their hearts on their sleeves, and live with a passion for life that appears to be compromised amongst the people in Vanda and Leonardo’s social circle. The cast are all equally as expressive in their roles, with good performances throughout by Messrs Bauraqui, Miranda, Menezes, and Santos, but special mention must go to José, whose portrayal of Quincas is the bedrock of the movie, and an amazing feat in itself (at first you’ll be looking to see if he twitches or blinks or can be caught breathing; don’t bother, you won’t manage it). He also provides a witty, often poignant narration that’s delivered with sincerity and charm. Rounded off by immersive yet unshowy cinematography by Toca Seabra, it’s a movie that never flags for incident, and never undervalues its characters or their motives.

Rating: 8/10 – a vital and energetic comedy drama that tackles themes of social climbing, emotional disillusionment, and unwanted family legacies, The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell is a sturdy, engaging and ultimately winning movie that offers much for the casual viewer to enjoy; advertised more as a comedy, it has a depth to it that anchors much of the storyline, and shows that absurd moments involving a corpse don’t have to be purely a showcase for laughs. (21/31)

NOTE: There aren’t any English subtitles for the trailer below, but there shouldn’t be any problem understanding what’s going on.