“Uma Família Feliz” is a Broken One

Uma Família Feliz

A quiet street. Kids playing as the sun sets in the horizon. This is the kind of image Eva (Grazi Massafera) and Vincent (Reynaldo Gianecchini), a widower with twin daughters, want to project for the world. But as soon as Eva gives birth to their first son, their ideas of domestic bliss warp into accusations, fear, and resentment. Uma Família Feliz (A Happy Family) is Raphael Montes’ 2024 adaptation, and it has caused quite a stir among audiences and critics.

Dubbed the Brazilian Stephen King, Montes is an author and screenwriter who has taken Brazilian publishing by storm. He has not only carved out a space for himself in the canon but also strengthened a niche that had long been ignored.

His first book Suicidas (Suicidals), released in 2012, tackles the story of a group of college-age kids who decided to lock themselves in a basement and commit mass suicide.

His raw and direct style of writing, coupled with his predilection for controversial and, at times, violent topics, made his books stand out in an industry that seemed only interested in more academic fare.

For the next twelve years, Montes published a plethora of novels and short stories, ranging from police thrillers to ghost stories, and established himself as one of the biggest Brazilian genre writers of the past decade.

And with time people start to expect complacency. People started to think they knew who he was and what to expect of him. Then he published Uma Família Feliz, one of his most interesting works.

In an interview for Cinema de Buteco, Montes explained that the idea came to him as an image, of a beautiful woman, in a red dress, digging a grave. Montes said that after so many publications, people started to tell him that his books were good because of their plot twist at the end, which changes the rest of the story. So, to combat the perception that his stories were only as good as a plot twist, he decided to open his next story with the ending.

We are immediately shown Eva burying one of the twin girls and forcing the other to get into a car that she recklessly drives toward an oncoming truck. Right away, we question what happened for this seemingly average woman to take such violent actions.

And this question is what drives the rest of the story.

As we get to know Eva and Vicente’s domestic life, it becomes apparent that the image they project is not real. Starting with Vicente, who, even though he’s a decent father, doesn’t really respect his new wife. After their son is born and Eva finds it difficult to reconcile motherhood and her work as a doll maker, he is quick to belittle her and say she does nothing but “play with dolls”  while he actually works. These types of comments slowly erode the relationship, which only gets worse.

Eva’s relationship with the twins is, initially, pleasant. She knows exactly what to get each of them as birthday gifts, she makes them nourishing breakfasts and drives them to any appointment.

But after the girls appear with bruises all over their bodies, the suspicion that Eva did it out of frustration from her inability to care for the children grows in Vincente. Now, with the added pressure of having to prove her innocence, Eva finds it increasingly difficult to care for the girls, who become more and more antagonistic to her. They lie, have tantrums, and mock her desperate attempts to get their affection back.

Not only that, her son refuses to breastfeed and seems to do nothing but cry in her arms.

Eva is exhausted and when pictures of the twins’ bruised bodies leak to the parent’s school group chat, the persecution begins. Neighbors and friends are quick to turn on Eva. The most painful being her one friend in the neighborhood, who knew about her struggles with postpartum depression and used that to make her look even more guilty in the eyes of the public jury.

Eva’s life spirals. Her business is attacked by cyber bullies and her personal life is destroyed by her neighbor’s vandalism, verbal and at times physical attacks.

Vincente decides he can no longer do this and sends her away to her parent’s old house, the same one we see her at, at the beginning of the story.

I’ll stop here as I don’t want to give you any more spoilers than I already have. But more than plot, the reason why I find Uma Família Feliz so compelling is how it functions as satire.

Raphael Montes is not afraid of approaching complicated themes. Suicide, the dangers of masculinity, and uncontrolled wealth. His books tell scary stories, yes, but mostly they talk about people who lost their humanity and how that affects those around them.

Uma Família Feliz makes us believe that that is the path we are taking, only to shift our attention to the fact that in the eyes of society, Eva has never been human.

Being a woman was already grounds for them to criticize her life choices. Marrying a widow, the work she does, the choice of having a kid with already two step-daughters. Nothing she ever did was right and when her son is born, any humanity left in her is taken away and replaced with the idea of what the perfect middle-class mother is supposed to be.

And when she fails to fulfill those expectations and finds herself struggling with postpartum depression, as 6.5% to 20% of women do, her community has no qualms about turning on her.

This kind of observation is not new to Raphael Montes’ work. Even in his first novel, what appears to be a plot focused solely on shock value, unfolds to reveal the hypocrisies of his characters. From the not-so-subtle homophobia of Brazilian “educated” society – as he would know as a gay man himself – to the less obvious class dynamics between the main group of friends.

While people might have found Uma Família Feliz a big departure for the author, with its melodramatic sequences and unflinching depictions of trauma, to me the story is more of a continuation.

Uma Família Feliz is Montes’ step towards subtlety, a satire that makes you cringe instead of laugh. It’s a bone-chilling reflection of what it is like to be a woman in Brazil in our post-conservative political moment. And as such, it’s deeply compelling.

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