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Two women flank a bearded man in front of a Sundance Film Festival backdrop.

“Malu”: The Emotional Apple Falls From the Volatile Tree

L–R: Carol Duarte, Pedro Freire, and Yara de Novaes appear at the premiere of “Malu” January 21 at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.  (Photo by Robin Marshall/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Vanessa Zimmer

Life with his mother, legendary Brazilian actress Malu Rocha, was a mix of laughter and depression — a “bipolar existence,” as charismatic writer-director Pedro Freire lovingly describes it. So it might be no surprise that Freire would come across as a man who cries a lot — and laughs about crying — when discussing Malu, his film based on her personality, at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Freire and his cast emanated a familial closeness as they took the stage after the premiere of Malu on January 21 in the Festival’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition

“It is really beautiful to me to bring you a little bit of [my mother] to Sundance in Park City,” he tells the appreciative audience. “Malu was an amazing person. She had a lot of problems,” he pauses to laugh. “She was not a traditional mother, you know, at all. But she was so brilliant. She was the main influence in my life, both artistically and intellectually.” 

They had a difficult relationship, he says, which he tried to portray through the mothers and daughters in the film — three generations of women who live in or visit the deteriorating family house in Rio de Janeiro. There’s Lili, mother and grandmother. Joana, daughter and granddaughter. And, at the center, always at the center, the gregarious and fiery Malu, loud and stridently pro-woman, regaling those around her with stories full of laughter and coarse language about her glory days as an actress. 

To say much more would be to ruin the journey of Malu, which more than anything is a portrait of the fascinating Brazilian woman. Both kind and cruel to those she loves, Malu wants to leave a meaningful cultural legacy for those who follow. You will love Malu, even at her most unlovable.

Actor Yara de Novaes, who amazingly inhabits this unique and unforgettable character, says (through an interpreter) that she felt a responsibility to put everything into her performance because Malu represented a generation that had to fight for its art. “Viva, Malu,” she salutes from the stage.

Freire says he was emotional throughout the project, beginning with the writing of the script. Because his house doesn’t have a convenient spot for writing, he says, he wrote from a coffee shop — eliciting a few giggles from audience members who saw where this story was heading.

“I cried a lot writing the script, really a lot,” he says, chuckling. “You can imagine that, right? I really was not crying, like, little tears,” and he breaks into a series of loud sobs. “And people were, like, what the hell… ” The audience bursts into laughter.

He confesses to crying throughout the filming, coaching the actors with wet cheeks, weeping as he edited the film, stopping only when he entered the technical color-correcting process. Carol Duarte, who plays Joana, jokes that it probably deprived Freire’s therapist of some money. 

“I didn’t want this film to be a psychoanalytic treatment,” Friere says, “but actually it was.”

Oh, and here’s the kicker: Malu is Freire’s debut feature film. In his Meet The Artist video, Freire confesses that because American independent cinema is his main reference point due to its attention to script and actors, he also literally cried when his film was accepted into the Festival.

To see more of the magic from the 2024 Festival, click here.