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Berlin Film Review: ‘Just Like Our Parents’

Variety logo Variety 2/20/2017 Jay Weissberg
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That impossible bind in which many career women finds themselves, forced to juggle the roles of wife, mother, and housekeeper together with a vocation, tends to be discussed more in women’s magazines than movies, so it’s refreshing to see Laís Bodanzky tackle the subject in “Just Like Our Parents.” Nicely told, with an eminently likable lead turn from Maria Ribeiro (“Elite Squad”), the film is a sympathetic portrayal of the conflicts between mothers and daughters, wives and husbands, and the eternal desire for a room of one’s own. Bodanzky (“The Best Things in the World”) and her co-scripter husband Luiz Bolognesi occasionally get as bogged down with conflicted loyalties as their protagonist, but the story’s universality and warmth could translate into modest worldwide sales.

Rosa (Ribeiro) wants to be writing plays rather than portfolios for a bathroom ceramics company, but she’s convinced herself her family needs the stability offered by a 9-to-5 office job. Her left-wing, middle class mother Clarice (Clarisse Abujamra) doesn’t see it that way, offering endless compliments to Rosa’s husband Dado (Paulo Vilhena) for his work as an anthropologist and environmental activist while denigrating her daughter’s apparently more prosaic existence. As tension ratchets up around the Sunday lunch table, Clarice cruelly drops a bomb: Rosa’s biological father isn’t Homero (Jorge Mautner), the man who helped raise her, but a casual acquaintance her mother had a fling with at a conference in Havana 38 years earlier.

The revelation undermines Rosa’s precarious stability, already reaching crisis point. Dado’s frequent absences and his overly indulgent behavior with their two daughters chips away at her attempts at discipline, plus she’s convinced he’s having an affair. Since Rosa is having a liaison (possibly chaste) with Pedro (Felipe Rocha), there’s some hypocrisy in her jealousy, though the script doesn’t address it.

Add to that professional dissatisfaction together with financial pressures from parasitic artist-serial philander Homero, and Rosa is reaching meltdown. Clearly she can’t look to her mother for support, but when Clarice is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Rosa listens harder to her mom’s wisdom.

Clarice remains a problematic figure, one the film doesn’t quite know how to handle. Her initial blithe spitefulness exposes monumental egotism as well as a preference for attractive men over sympathy for her own daughter. When the cancer diagnosis comes, she treats it with sanguinity, telling the family she’s had a great life and has no intention of enduring the long-term futility of treatment when it would merely add a few deeply unpleasant months. So the affectionate wisdom she imparts to Rosa at this stage feels as if the viewer is meant to reassess Clarice’s behavior and cast it in a more positive light, when such a spin is neither logical nor valid. We may yearn for solidarity between mother and daughter, but the denouement here feels artificially tacked on and ultimately unsatisfying when Rosa’s grievances over her mistreatment are completely legitimate.

Rosa is not and should not be “just like our parents,” and condemning her to that cycle does the character (and us) an injustice. Apart from this, however, the film adeptly addresses the “superwoman” quandary, which casts mothers in a critical light if they aren’t seen as effortlessly coping with children, a husband, a household, and a career.  While Rosa’s reading matter — “A Doll’s House” and “The Second Sex” — may seem obvious or old-fashioned, the sad truth is these books’ relevance remains undiminished.

Lead actress Ribeiro ensures that Rosa is a figure anyone can identify with, her struggle for self-realization as pertinent today as it was in Clarice’s generation. Versatile cinematographer Pedro J. Márquez makes the visuals clean and bright while ensuring audiences form a close rapport with the protagonist, and editor Rodrigo Menecucci deserves special praise for excellent cutting in a scene when Rosa returns home to find her daughters acting out, her husband egging them on, and a phone call that makes it all feel as if her life is spinning out of control.

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