After three Oscar nominations and over 30 prominent film roles, the quote most often attributed to actress Greta Garbo is her iconic Grand Hotel retort: “I want to be alone.” The star later clarified in an interview, “I only said I want to be left alone. There’s a difference.”
In the northeastern Brazilian town of Fortaleza, Pedro (veteran TV actor Marco Nanini) — a 70-year-old gay nurse and self-proclaimed Garbo superfan — uses the quote as a guiding force amidst his own strangely crowded brand of loneliness. Whether he is tending to ailing patients in the hospital where he works, or receiving an oversolicitous handjob at a gay bar where he feels emboldened to express his sexuality in the neon shadows, Pedro is prone to muttering the words like an incantation: “I want to be alone.”
The older man’s sheen of isolation is only truly breached by his neighbor and long-time friend, Daniela (Denis Weinberg). The two of them keep a comfortably scrappy queer circle, as she regularly sings cabaret and nonchalantly smokes a cigarette while two men hook up in a room she rents out above a local club.
This character exposition is immensely aided by the actors’ lived-in performances. Renowned comedy actors Nanini and Weinberg — who recently garnered an International Emmy nomination for her rolen on the Brazilian series Psi — easily establish the dynamic of two long-standing friends with little dialogue, communicating years of weathered support in glances alone.
But Daniela’s bright, omnipresent blue makeup fails to hide the fact that she’s fighting a severe, life-threatening kidney disease. When her condition worsens and the hospital reaches full capacity, Pedro rashly decides to smuggle the recently admitted Jean — who we later learn was just convicted of involuntary manslaughter — into his own home to offer his friend medical treatment.
As Jean groans under the pain of his lingering chest wound,the older man regales him with the story of how Garbo’s well-known line came to be. This time, though, he peppers it with a warning: “Little does she know that right there, inside her room, there’s a crook in hiding, waiting to steal a pearl necklace.” His charge might protest that he’s no crook, but when Daniela refuses the open hospital bed based in the men’s ward as a transgender woman, Pedro suddenly finds himself stuck with a cagey young man who may very well be dangerous.
Without even a musical score to set the mood, the tenuous progression of Pedro and Jean’s dynamic is compelling through their raw, candid banter alone — it’s difficult to tell who is the captor and who is captive in many instances.
Given that this is Armando Praca’s feature debut, the remainder of Greta could’ve more lazily coasted off of the sensationalism of hiding a convict or the potential for torture porn in depicting a seriously ill trans person. Instead, the director — who previously assisted Brazilian arthouse names like Karim Ainouz (Future Beach) makes the wise decision of deriving tension from these understated character beats.
Before long, the charged flirtation between the two men crosses the line into a sexual relationship. The gratuitous nudity and insistent slowness throughout is bound to turn off even some more regular festival crowd goers, but one of the most refreshing parts of the film is how pointedly it shrugs off the more stylized queer self-actualization tropes often thought necessary to make LGBT stories palatable enough for mainstream audiences.
Pedro, Daniela and Jean aren’t easily categorizable archetypes with clean-cut, predictable stories of coming to find their places within their society. The realistic aging of older queer bodies, as well as the realistic awkwardness that comes with sex — often shied away from with straight couples and young gay characters — is on full, unsanitized display.
The film succeeds when it pointedly engages with how intersections of marginalization — whether they be gender, class, sexuality, or place in the criminal system — impact the ways in which we let ourselves be open with others. In a way, this gives credibility to Pedro’s willingness to be so open with a man wanted for such a violent crime.
It’s worth noting that the casting of a cisgender actress to play Daniela and trans actress Gretta Star to play a minor cis character further complicates the film’s messaging about breaking through corporeal barriers.
Greta falters in its third act, when it scrambles to draw more leaden conclusions to storylines that were best left subtly explored. We don’t need to know whether Jean is deserving of innocence, or to what degree Jean and Pedro’s relationship was borne out of manipulation and circumstance. Daniela’s decision to endure her terminal diagnosis at home rather than being misgendered is, unfortunately, largely watered down in favor of the two male characters’ dynamic for much of the second act, somewhat neglecting what could have made for an impactful conversation about how older trans communities are treated in medical settings.
But, in favor of crafting a cleverly interior LGBT-centric drama — especially given that the film’s home country recently elected a vehemently homophobic president — Praca is poised to emerge as a breakout director in Brazil’s indie film scene. The film’s characters might be isolated in their own ways, but the necessity of not being “let alone” (as Garbo supposedly put it) is what propels their journeys towards one another.
Written by Abby Monteil
Abby Monteil is a journalism student and freelance culture writer from the Midwest. Abby is particularly interested in genre-pushing films and portrayals of women and the LGBT community. She’s currently working for a media company in London and trying to convince Maya Rudolph and Paul Thomas Anderson to adopt her.