Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

- courtesy of Invisible Life production ©Bruno Machado

Two sisters’ travails colorfully embody 1950’s Brazilian women.

By Nora Lee Mandel

Directed by Karim Aïnouz
Written by Murilo Hauser, with Inés Bortagaray, and Karim Aïnouz, based on the novel The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão by Martha Batalha
Produced by Rodrigo Teixeira, Michael Weber and Viola Fügen
In Portuguese with English subtitles
141 minutes. Not Rated
Amazon Studios release in theaters 1/3/2020
With: Carol Duarte, Julia Stockler, Fernanda Montenegro, Gregorio Duvivier, António Fonseca, Bárbara Santos, Nikolas Antunes, and Cristina Pereira

In the opening prologue of the colorfully emotive Invisible Life, the devoted Gusmão sisters joyously run free together through the verdant forest around Rio de Janeiro. But when 18-year-old Eurídice (Carol Duarte) and 20-year-old Guida (Julia Stockler) return home, they are resentfully trapped by the conservative and limited expectations for women in their 1950’s Portuguese immigrant neighborhood.

In addition to relating to their first-generation pressures as the son of an Algerian immigrant to Brazil, director Karim Aïnouz first read Martha Batalha’s scathingly funny, feminist novel The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão as his single mother was dying in 2015. He felt the personal struggles of her Brazilian generation, like these sisters, had not been seen on screen without fade-outs into nostalgia. Following up on his first short Seams (1993), a documentary portrait of his grandmother who alone supported her family as a seamstress, he interviewed women in their ‘80’s and ‘90’s about their first intimacies with men to more personalize the psychological violence women like these sisters suffered.

Steady Eurídice loses herself in playing piano, and is aiming for a Vienna conservatory audition. Flirtatious, rebellious Guida also hopes for travel, and falls for the promises of Greek sailor Iorgos (Nikolas Antunes) for elopement to take her with him. Her desertion devastates Eurídice. Worse, their baker father Manuel (António Fonseca) wants to quickly halt any more independence, and convinces her to marry the son of a big man in the flour business, Antenor Campelo (Gregorio Duvivier). Her romantic dreams are quickly quashed in an extended, painful scene on the bathroom floor of their honeymoon suite, where her initiation into marital sex is horrific, especially for societal normality.

Their browbeaten mother Ana (Flávia Gusmão) compounds the sisters’ separation. When Guida shows up abandoned and pregnant, the parents reject her and deny she ever returned. While they claim Eurídice made it to Vienna, she too is inconvenienced by pregnancy, in this decade before The Pill, as she fantasizes about Guida when she does determinedly make it to the audition. But the piano in the living room becomes a haunting symbol of her lost dream as she rages against what Betty Friedan just a few years later would identify as The Feminine Mystique, that culminates in shocking imagery. The patronizing men around her – doctor, husband, father – repress her flames of protest even more.

Hanging on to the presumption of that dream, Guida regularly sends letters via their mother to forward to her sister, read in poignant voice-overs from the other side of the class divide damaged by male privilege. Trying to manage any kind of work and pay rent, she gives birth in an overcrowded public hospital that can’t handle an adoption. Her life, and the film, light up when she discovers Filomena (charismatic Bárbara Santos), an Afro-Brazilian ex-prostitute, community bulwark, who provides childcare and emotional support for the single mothers in the downtrodden neighborhood. Filomena becomes Guida’s replacement family at this critical time in her life.

Even as Eurídice hires a private detective to find her, the continuing divide between the sisters is heartbreakingly visualized when Guida spots her in a restaurant – but their father is there and she can’t confront his banishment. Diverging more from the book, the epilogue jarringly jumps too much into the future, where the estimable 90-year-old Fernanda Montenegro is Eurídice, still longing for her sister, and finding ironic satisfaction.

Calling the film “a tropical melodrama”, Aïnouz presses the specific localism of this hot, humid city, where people sweat and lounge around in their underwear. Among the 90% female crew, French cinematographer Hélène Louvart (Happy As Lazzaro in 2018) emphasizes the tropical colors flowing from the outside to inside with the lighting, reflections, and saturated imagery.

Though inspired by Douglas Sirk, like his mentor Todd Haynes was for Far From Heaven (2002), Aïnouz made Invisible Life more than another lush “woman’s picture” by a male gay director. From the title on, he relates to women’s marginality and dedicated his “anti-patriarchal film” to Brazilian women. Though Brazil’s entry for International Feature Film did not make the short list, this is a both a gorgeously heartrending cinematic tribute to women of the 1950’s and a passionate warning of what could return if conservatives’ longing for this past becomes our future.

(In Veredas: A Generation of Brazilian Filmmakers at Film at Lincoln Center)


Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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