REVIEW: Brazil’s Oscar Entry Is an Intoxicating Drama About an Unbreakable Sisterly Bond & Soul-Crushing Patriarchy

Courtesy of TIFF

Scored with the sounds of the rainforest, Karim Aïnouz’s exuberant melodrama A vida invisível de Eurídice Gusmão (Invisible Life) casts a tropical spell of soul-stirring proportions as it maps the yearslong trajectory of how archaic patriarchal attitudes tampered with an indestructible sisterhood in 1950s Rio de Janeiro.

Reworked from Martha Batalha’s 2016 novel, this tantalizing feminist two-hander opens with a dreamlike sequence in the Amazonia adjacent to the bustling city where the Gusmão sisters, Eurídice (Carol Duarte) and Guida (Julia Stockler). The women have become separated and desperately try to find each other. It’s as if the illusory uncoupling was priming them for what’s to come.

Daughters to a working-class, traditionalist Portuguese father and a mother crushed into submission, the young women’s future prospects in a chauvinist society stop at a proper marriage with a man their family sees suitable. In private, however, their individuality blossoms through Guida’s cheeky tall tales of sexual awakening with a Greek sailor and Eurídice’s determination to audition for the Vienna conservatory as a pianist.

Like thunder, laughter precedes a downpour of sorrows. Separated first by a youthfully reckless romance and then a disgraceful parental lie, their sisterhood is rendered a kaleidoscope of unread letters, time lost in loneliness, unfixable regrets and the promise of a bittersweet reunion.

Courtesy of TIFF
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Exquisitely sultry throughout, Invisible Life took French cinematographer Hélène Louvart (Beach Rats) to South America in order to beguilingly illuminate the spaces Aïnouz impregnates with greenery. He heightens the already rich palette, bringing the endemic nature of Rio indoors. Louvart works in an ethereal atmosphere into every room by way of delicately colored lighting that coats them in a seductive haze of bluish and reddish tones. An early scene at a dance club between Guida and her Mediterranean lover plays like a mirage of passion, seen through the eyes of someone whose vision is clouded by desire.

Strategically positioned mirrors cast reflections of both siblings — though of Eurídice more often and frequently in brooding manner — are much more than a visual gimmick. In those likenesses, they get to bear witness to their own corporealness. They have not disappeared, for better or worse. Often, Aïnouz films women in the solitude of bathrooms, secluded from the men that taunt them with their flimsy egos, a respite from quotidian tyranny.

Sex scenes devoid of libido and exposed as grossly transactional from a female point of view, indignantly communicate that freedom is what these characters lust after. Two women, like countless others, for whom motherhood didn’t function as a source of absolute fulfillment. Treasuring the memory of one another above all else counts as a self-preservation tactic in a world bent on erasing any traces of defiance in them.

With ample range on display, Duarte and Stockler accompany their respective aggrieved characters on a ride that begins in buoyant adolescence and crosses over despair to arrive at resignation, which doesn’t heal but patches the emotional lesions for them to keep on living. Anyone who’s ever missed somebody deeply without the power to bring them back close, will share in the tragedy of their hankering for reconnection.

Duarte’s Eurídice, imposingly tall and introverted, wishes to vanish into her music and in every note leave behind the housewife reality that murdered her dreams. Vivacious, Guida, in Stockler’s hands, is charged an unreasonable rate in pain for a juvenile mistake, and so her skin thickens in the company of other mothers raising children without fathers. Amid her personal predicaments, Guida never stops writing, as we learn in voice over, because each line builds a bridge to a better past.

Among the finest Latin American period pieces of the decade, Aïnouz’s inspired and intoxicatingly sensorial reverie of a movie fits within his canon of lush dramas infatuated with ostracized and beautifully doomed, yet vibrant subjects. Eurídice and Guida are indistinct, in essence, from the queer men in Madame Satã or Praia do Futuro (Futuro Beach).

For its epilogue, Invisible Life enlists Oscar-nominated Carioca legend Fernanda Montenegro in a nearly silent cameo that reverberates with the touching intensity of a woman finally tasting the sweetness of closure. Brief as her moments on screen may be, the veteran Brazilian star seals the heartbreaking deal with an embrace charged with decades of bitter longing. Her presence is a beacon of tried wisdom.

With the Christ the Redeemer statue as her witness, Eurídice cherishes the everlasting confirmation that her and Guida weren’t apart in spirit. Being in each other’s thoughts meant they could never be made invisible. Despite their messages not reaching the intended recipient, their mutual affection — communicated in writing or spoken out loud — validated their battered existences. Words, as expressions of love, don’t age.

Invisible Life opens in U.S. theaters on December 20, 2019. It is Brazil’s submission for the Best International Film category at the 92nd Academy Awards.

Editor’s Note, December 18, 2019 at 11:25 a.m. ET: This post has been updated. It previously said the movie was set in the 1940s, but it takes place in the 1950s.