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Charcoal

"I cackled with laughter several times and enjoyed it hugely."

★★★★½ - STUFF 

- A darkly funny Brazilian gem - 

Charcoal is set mostly in a three-room shack not too far from Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The calendar on the kitchen wall tells us the year is 2017, but it may just be no one has bothered to change the calendar for a few years and the events of the film are actually happening in 2022. If I had to choose, I reckon I'd go for the latter.

The family who live here – Irene, Jairo, their 9-year-old son Jean and Irene's 88-year-old bed-ridden father – are eking out a living making charcoal from demolition timber, a little cooking and catering from Irene, and whatever labouring work Jairo can be bothered to pick up from the neighbours.

But, a visit from the kindly and pragmatic local community nurse might offer the family a respite from poverty. Throw your dad into the charcoal oven, she suggests to Irene – and then take in a fugitive Argentinian drug-lord as a temporary boarder. The family need the money – and Miguel the cocaine-baron needs a place to hide while his new false identity is being arranged. What could possibly go wrong?

Writer and director Carolina Markowicz has crafted a dark, hellishly funny and drolly satiric gem here. Charcoal was her debut feature, but she has completed another, called Toll, in the two years it has taken Charcoal to reach our cinemas down here in the Pacific.

The premise of Charcoal might be startlingly unlikely – the best escape plan a narco-millionaire can come up with, involves living with an impoverished peasant family in a close knit rural community? – but the setting and characters are so deftly and affectionately drawn, you'll forgive the film its contrivances and just go along with its sublimely enjoyable ride.

As matriarch Irene, Maeve Jinkings (Neighbouring Sounds) turns in a piece of work that keeps the film ticking over and moving forward. Irene is as resourceful and resilient as any woman married to a deadbeat must be. She knows Miguel might be a ticket to a better life for her and Jean, but that taking him in could be a death sentence for the family. Fugitive drug-lords aren't known for leaving behind loose-ends.

And dad Jairo might look like god's own waste of space, but he also has his secrets, and a few hidden talents to bring to bear.

I walked into a preview of Charcoal knowing almost nothing about it, which is the perfect way to see any film. I cackled with laughter several times and enjoyed it hugely. But I also noticed the other dozen or so people in the audience were mostly sitting in stony and occasionally uncomfortable silence. And there were mutterings of the "what the hell did we just watch?" variety in the lobby on the way out.

So, I'm happy to acknowledge that Charcoal might be an acquired taste and that maybe you'll need a dark sense of humour to really like it. But, if you were a fan of Parasite – or even Saltburn – then I reckon you'll appreciate the deadpan mordancy of Charcoal very much indeed. Bravo.

- Graeme Tuckett, STUFF

Charcoal is now playing at Light House Cinema! 

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