"Alice's House," about a working-class Sao Paolo woman in a family of men, is a quiet, observant slice of life that blows sensually hot and witheringly cold. Like a Brazilian telenovela unfolding in real time, the film fans its cards out slowly until we can see for ourselves the deck is stacked.
At the center is a luminous Carla Ribas as Alice: manicurist, working mom, ignored wife, and still a vibrant, earthy woman. She lives in a cramped high-rise apartment with her aging mother (Berta Zemel), taxi-driver husband (Ze Carlos Machado), and three sons: 26-year-old Lucas (Vinicius Zinn), middle child Edinho (Ricardo Vilaça), and Junior (Felipe Massuia), the 15-year-old baby of the house. The boys share a bedroom like puppies; they fight and play like them, too.
Director/co-writer Chico Teixeira gives us a modern Brazil where everyone has a secret sexual life - the air itself seems to secrete hormones. When a handsome stranger gropes Alice on the bus, she leans back into him with a smile, later regaling her co-workers with juicy details.
Yet it's a macho society, and the rules aren't fair: While everyone plays around, it's the women who end up holding the bag. Even Alice isn't exempt from this skewed worldview: When she learns her husband has been unfaithful and with whom, she takes her fury out on the other woman rather than the man who has betrayed her.
The sons, meanwhile, take their cues from their father. Lucas, an army regular, propounds a brutally phallocentric philosophy with the insistence of a man hiding his own sexuality. He coaches Junior on how to lose his virginity, but the young brother is still too unformed to follow his advice. It's a matter of time, the film implies.
"Alice's House" putters along for its first half, establishing a mood of daily, unacknowledged eroticism, and then it raises the stakes. One of the beauty parlor clients, a rich wife named Carmen (Renata Zhaneta), sends her husband in for an appointment, and this turns out to be Alice's adolescent sweetheart, Nilson (Luciano Quirino), a bad boy made good. Suddenly the heroine has a chance for her own bliss on the side. The question isn't whether to give in but how far to open her heart.
The grandmother is the secret conscience of the film; having aged beyond the need for sexual games, she's the only one who sees things exactly as they are. (Consequently, the men of "Alice's House" treat her with nervous rudeness.) Her weakness - this entire society's weakness, says Teixeira - is a belief that charms and magic potions can bring happiness, when in fact we make our own luck, good or bad. The movie opens a window and lets the air into a house that's as big as Brazil itself.