Brazil’s remote northeastern territory provides a languorous and otherworldly ambience for Aluizio Abranches’s moody revenge drama The Three Marias. The film opens on a vast, deserted mesa, where in the far distance a man presses a woman to his breast while she struggles against him. Her rejection sets in motion a chain of events in motion culminating in the bloody murders of three men. The woman is the beautiful, iron-willed Filomena (Marieta Severo); the victims are her husband and two sons; the perpetrator is her scorned suitor, Firmino (Carlos Vereza), who carries out the crime with the aid of his own noxious progeny. Filomena wastes no time moping. Instead, she sends her three daughters (each named Maria) alone into Brazil’s wild backcountry, to find and hire three infamous hit men. The daughters’ adventures—with a snake-wielding misogynist, a rabid police officer, and a seemingly schizophrenic prisoner—make up the bulk of this colorful tale of retribution.
Abranches is a student of physiognomy—as in silent cinema, his actors’ faces carry a large part of his story. But he’s so focused on creating a strikingly mannerist visual style that he forgets to flesh out his plot and characters. The eccentric personalities of the hit men are vividly imagined, but the daughters fade into varying forms of loveliness. Still more problematic is the story’s tri-part, fairy-tale structure, which unfolds ploddingly despite several twists in expectations. Realism is obviously not the main concern in a film that aims for the aura of Greek tragedy. But what was Filomena doing with Firmino on that deserted mesa in the first place, and do many embittered ex-fiancées nurse their grudges for 30 years before taking action?