A Wolf at the Door (O Lobão atrás da Porta) is a chilling tale. Inspired by the real-life story of the Beast of Penha and a kidnapping that shocked Brazil in 1960, it is Brazilian writer and director Fernando Coímbra’s examination of the personalities involved and how an act of poor judgment can unleash demons no one knew existed and lead to unimagined consequences.
This isn’t postcard-pretty Rio de Janeiro. Rather, it takes place in the suburbs far from Corcovado and the groomed beaches of Guanabara Bay and begins with a simple flirtation on the platform of a stop on the commuter rail line. Rosa (Leandra Leal) and Bernardo (Milhem Cortaz) quickly end up having a romp in bed, but Rosa wants more than a one-time fling, and things take a peculiar turn after they launch an affair, and she finds out that Bernardo is married. She wants him for herself, and one of her strategies is to seek out his wife Sylvia (Fabiula Nascimento), stage an accidental meeting and use the opportunity to win Sylvia’s friendship and find out the intimate details of Bernardo’s family life.
The lovely Leal’s performance as Rosa is riveting, as she gradually reveals a personality far more complex than a girl looking for a good time and challenges the audience to look beyond her outer beauty and warmth to see the ugliness inside a woman who lacks a moral conscience and has a heart that turns truly frigid when she doesn’t get what she wants.
Cortaz plays Bernardo as a macho, selfish man, who puts himself first and hurts the women in his life while seeming clueless to the damage his irresponsible behavior is causing. Nascimento as the decent, trusting Sylvia shows a range of emotions, ranging from the nagging suspicion that her husband might be having an affair to paralyzing fear when she discovers that her daughter is missing.
This is Coímbra’s first feature film, and he frames the story masterfully with noir elements, beginning with the police’s investigation of the kidnapping as they hear three different versions of the events leading to it, and then going back to the beginning to have Rosa tell her story in detail, slowly revealing a damaged woman who sees herself as the victim in a love triangle and calculates her revenge. Coímbra’s choice of a drab working-class suburb for the setting adds to the sense of desperation and desire to escape that drives Rosa.
The Beast of Penha, Rosa’s counterpart in real life, never expressed any remorse for her actions, and ultimately, it’s that lack of humanity that Coímbra captures, shocking the audience with the reality that evil can appear where we least expect it, and beauty really is only skin deep.
The film (100 minutes) opened at Smith Ranch Road on July 16, 2015. It was released in 2013, screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2014 and has won numerous awards for Coímbra’s direction and Leal as best actress. In addition, it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Miami Film Festival in 2014 and an ABC Cinematography Award in 2015 for best cinematography and best editing. It is unrated, but contains sex, violence and one particularly shocking scene.
It is in Portuguese with English subtitles, and the English title, “A Wolf at the Door,” is something of a misnomer. A more accurate translation is “The Wolf Behind the Door,” and although the difference is subtle, it is a better reflection of the story. Once the wolf is inside, it’s impossible to escape the danger.