Review by Alan French
How far are you willing to go to change your circumstances? FIlm often allows us to gain empathy for those whose lives are vastly different than our own. Yet there are some stories and desperations that are impossible to simulate. A Brazilian and Argentine film, Charcoal, forces the audience to play one of these upsetting thought exercises. Directed by Caroline Markowicz, Charcoal pushes its characters to the edge of what they can handle.
For Irene (Maeve Jenkins), a better life is just out of reach. Living in rural Brazil, Irene struggles to care for her ailing father. Her son, Jean (Jean Costa), lives with the bedridden man. When a new medical caregiver arrives to check on Irene’s father, the caregiver offers a devious proposal: kill your father and hide a drug kingpin in his place. After taking steps to partake in the offer, Irene wrestles with the difficulties of hiding a drug lord.
Much of Charcoal hinges on the performance of Irene, and Jenkins answers the call. She pours a well of desperation into the character, making the stakes clear to the audience. She commits a vulnerability to the screen, making you feel the anguish of committing cardinal sins leaves on the soul. Yet that desperation hopes to chart a path for her family, specifically her son, to escape this world. Even as others push her around, there’s a grace in Jenkins’ performance. Without her turn, the movie does not work.
She not only forces Irene to face difficulty but also uses the events to examine a loss of power. Miguel (César Bordón), the drug kingpin, once held a position of strength over an entire organization. The loss of authority and agency forces him to assert his control over those in his vicinity. In this case, he applies this pressure to his host family, particularly on the young son. He continues to live his life in a manner he sees fit — doing drugs and sleeping with his partner — but shows no respect for Irene in the process. His blatant disrespect shows a lack of awareness that only deepens the anxiety in the house.
Markowicz uses this dichotomy to create a pressure cooker environment. Each action from Miguel and Irene increases the pressure on someone. As Miguel grows stir-crazy from isolation, Irene must keep the town at arm’s length. Her relationships begin to dissolve, and those around her become suspicious of her father’s health. As Charcoal examines our duty to family and community, it begins to unravel the impact each action has on the family.
The film opens up familial wounds and resentments and questions whether the cancer eating away at their relationships is already present. Markowicz seems to place the blame at the feet of their low economic status but imbues Irene with ambition that manifests in the final scenes. However, the rot created by the film’s inciting incidents may be too far gone to overcome.
Ultimately, the film suffers a few setbacks. While there seemed to be opportunities to heighten the images captured on screen, the cinematography feels rather bland. Additionally, the struggle between Irene and her husband feels out-of-place in the film. While the movie hints at additional issues that may arise, the end result of their fighting does not play out. Instead, this makes the film feel slightly bloated. This bloat hurts the pacing, and blurs the messages that Markowicz seems interested in conveying.
While Charcoal has some slight issues, Markowicz showcases skills worthy of admiration. While the film is strengthened by Jenkins and Bordón’s performances, the moral questions raised by Markowicz become the narrative’s engine. The concepts at play and the visuals blend well enough to make this a feature worthy of examination. However, it seems likely that you will want to watch Charcoal as a primer for Markowicz’s next feature.
Charcoal screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which runs September 8-18.