True Crime Tuesdays: Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon a Crime
Helen Archer | On 20, Jul 2021
This Netflix true crime series is a strange beast. Directed by Eliza Capai, it features the first interview with Elize Matsunaga, who, in 2016, was found guilty of killing and dismembering her husband, Marcos, heir to a multi-million dollar food manufacturing fortune. With her now serving a 16-year sentence, the four-part documentary looks back at the high-profile murder that shocked Brazil, and gives Elize her chance to tell her story.
In what is perhaps deliberate misdirection, we first join Elize as she is being allowed out of prison, settling into a flat where she has been “furloughed”, and sitting down to begin her interviews. Though it initially seems as though she has been released, we are later told that in Brazil, prisoners can be let out up to five times a year, for a week at a time. Elize’s motive for taking part in the documentary quickly becomes apparent – she wants to be reunited with her daughter, who has been in the custody of her parental grandparents since the murder.
The first couple of episodes are, unsurprisingly, fairly gripping – especially for those of us unacquainted with the case. They jump back and forth chronologically, from the present day to her trial and back further to the days leading up to the murder in 2012 – so that the information can be revealed in a drip-drip manner. Elize is supported via interviews with her own lawyers, and her aunt and grandmother, while a cast of somewhat eccentric characters – investigating officers, medical examiners, prosecuting lawyers, and the victim’s childhood friends – paint a picture of a cold-hearted ice queen, who premeditated the murder in a bid to hold on to her social status and her husband’s wealth. Intercut with the interviews is slightly sinister footage of Elize walking through a forest in a low-cut black dress, as well as reversed re-enactments of her dumping the blue plastic bags her husband’s body parts were found in.
Generally speaking, true crime falls into the categories of dodgy convictions, a plea for innocence, seeking information for cold cases, or “how they caught the killer”. There is also a kind of sub-genre of infamous serial killers talking about their crimes – Kemper on Kemper springs to mind, although this at least has a historical lesson attached, as his interviews formed the basis of much criminal psychology – but it’s not usual for people who have been convicted of murder to get four hours to explain how and why they did it. True crime connoisseurs will doubtless be expecting some sort of justification for the killing, in the form, perhaps, of physical abuse Elize had to endure. Many will also expect to side with the female, especially within the kind of patriarchal culture depicted here. And yet over the course of the four episodes, it proves very difficult sympathise with Elize, despite her difficult upbringing, during which she was abused by her stepfather, followed by a marriage in which the power balance was clearly skewed.
Much time is given over to the misogyny of Brazilian society and, indeed, many of the men interviewed out themselves as thoughtlessly yet thoroughly sexist. But there is no denying the brutality of the murder – the shot to the head at point blank range, followed by the expert dismembering of the body, then the lies to cover up her crime. Elize and her husband, it transpires, were keen hunters, who enjoyed killing for sport. Included in the series is home footage of them laughing as a mouse wets itself just before being devoured by their pet snake. Although accusations have been made about the documentary hoping to garner sympathy for Elize, scenes like this make the directorial ambivalence apparent.
Other accusations have been levelled about the re-victimisation of Marcos, whose infidelities and predilection for escorts is used as a sort of mitigating factor. His voice – and that of his family’s – is only heard through tapings of evidence given in the trial by his brother and his cousin. Some of the interviewees, meanwhile, point to knotty issues of class, sex, and race. Yet for all the talk about whether the crime would have got as much publicity if the victim was female, or if the victim wasn’t wealthy, it also begs the question – which goes unanswered – of whether a documentary would be made featuring a lengthy interview with a man who had killed his wife in such a way, giving “his side of the story”.
Ultimately, you can’t help but wonder whether it’s a good thing that Elize is unable to access her pre-teen daughter, who will suffer a lifetime of generational trauma thanks to the actions of her mother. Doubtless, one day she will watch the series and, like the viewer, make up her own mind about the fairness of the verdict.
Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon a Crime is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.