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The lustrous textures, boldly saturated colors and lush sounds of Invisible Life serve to intensify the intimacy of Karim Ainouz’s gorgeous melodrama about women whose independence of mind remains undiminished, even as their dreams are shattered by a stifling patriarchal society. Adapted from the 2015 debut novel by Martha Batalha, the film hinges on a heartbreaking separation that causes decades of yearning and unanswered questions. But its supple moods are far more complex than that narrative core might suggest, winding through passages by turns seductive and sorrowful, tender and raw.
In features from 2002’s Madame Sata through 2014’s Futuro Beach, NYU-trained Brazilian filmmaker Ainouz has always been more of a visual and tonal storyteller than a slave to plot, though his attentive eye for illuminating character detail and social context has been a constant. He settles on a deft middle ground here, following the novelistic sweep of the source material without surrendering the loose, dreamy approach that has made even his most imperfect work so pleasurable.
Running a generous two hours and 20 minutes, his new film is languid at times but always involving, enveloped in the characteristically Brazilian feeling of melancholy known as saudade, yet sustained by a sense of warmth and solidarity that seems present even when all physical connection between the central characters has been broken. A deep love and respect for women — sisters, mothers, female friends who become family surrogates — and a somber acknowledgment of the wrongs they absorb informs every scene.
The movie also benefits from the distinctive presences of relative screen newcomers Carol Duarte and Julia Stockler, giving performances that range across a spectrum from enervated vulnerability to jagged, edge-of-insanity frustration in the key roles; and from a lovely extended appearance toward the end by the great Fernanda Montenegro, so unforgettable in Walter Salles’ Central Station. Her face at 90 is a magnificent road map of humanity, emotional experience, and in this role, subsumed hurt.
The opening images of rainforest vegetation converging with rocky coastline on the edge of Rio de Janeiro, shot in startlingly vivid shades by French cinematographer Helene Louvart and accompanied by composer Benedikt Schiefer’s pensive score, instantly back up the movie’s tagline promise of “a tropical melodrama.”
The separation of 18-year-old Euridice (Duarte) from her sister Guida (Stockler), 20, is foreshadowed when they lose one another while heading back home as a storm approaches. Their stern father Manuel (Antonio Fonseca) and dutiful mother Ana (Flavia Gusmao) run a conservative household, but the young women nourish each other’s spirits. Euridice reluctantly covers for Guida’s clandestine nighttime outings to dance clubs with handsome Greek sailor Yorgos (Nikolas Antunes), and while she frets about sin, she also relishes the excitement of her older sister’s sexual discoveries. Guida, in turn, encourages the hopes of Euridice, a gifted pianist, to study at the music conservatory in Vienna.
Their life-giving bond is severed when Guida takes off with her beau on a ship bound for Athens, leaving word in a letter that she’ll return when she’s married. But Yorgos turns out to be a womanizing louse, so instead Guida comes back single and pregnant. In a scene of shocking harshness, she is disowned by her father while her mother stands by helplessly. When Guida begs to see her sister, Manuel tells her Euridice has left to study in Vienna, a lie that feels even crueler given how steadily that dream slips out of the aspiring pianist’s grasp.
In truth, Euridice has married a charmless man-child named Antenor (Gregorio Duvivier), whose idea of wedding-night consummation is brusquely clumsy, to put it mildly. And despite her efforts to avoid getting pregnant before her conservatory audition, she soon finds herself expecting a child. Guida, in the meantime, has given birth to a son, and is taken in by tough but caring former prostitute Filomena (Barbara Santos).
While the drama does not touch directly on the LGBT themes that have often figured in Ainouz’s work, there’s an understated queer correlation in the way that the abandoned Guida, her young son and Filomena evolve into a chosen family. In one of her many letters throughout the 1950s to Euridice, heard in voiceover, Guida writes, “Filomena is my mother, my father and also my sister.” That relationship, as much as the one that lingers between Euridice and Guida in their hearts and minds, is beautifully observed with the filmmaker’s characteristic economy.
There’s a poignant contrast between Guida’s relative contentment — albeit with the struggle of working two jobs and the sadness of an additional loss on top of her sister’s disappearance from her life — and the hollow existence of Euridice, her fulfillment thwarted by both her husband and father. Antenor’s refusal to understand why simply being able to play the piano at home isn’t enough for her succinctly encapsulates men’s limited understanding at that time — and to this day, in many cases — of women’s drives, beyond the roles of wife, mother and homemaker.
While the film never gets too literal about the Greek roots of the main character’s name, it seems subtly significant, reinterpreting the Orpheus myth in the failure of music to save Euridice, if not from Hell, then from a deadening life of numbness.
Ainouz has minimal interest in conventional explanatory linking scenes, skipping forward in time with only the dates of Guida’s undelivered letters identifying the advancing years. (Heike Parplies’ editing has a graceful fluidity throughout.) And the director never overplays the aching proximity of the sisters, unknowingly living parallel lives in different parts of the same city.
This factor acquires added tension, however, through being confined just to a single exquisitely crafted scene, with the now habitually tetchy Euridice in the restroom of a restaurant one Christmas Eve, while her father, back at the table, nervously watches the snobby maître d’ refuse entry to Guida and Filomena at the door. You hold your breath as Guida’s son wanders inside undetected and strikes up the kind of instant rapport with Euridice’s daughter that’s typical of young children, the two of them captivated by the restaurant’s aquarium.
That suspenseful moment seems to point to an inevitable reunion, but instead, the script by Murilo Hauser, Ines Bortagaray and Ainouz fast-forwards some 60 years to a discovery both shattering and strangely uplifting, finding fragments of comfort and beauty near the end of the chief protagonist’s broken life.
Despite its many depictions of cruel insensitivity, quotidian unfairness and chronic disappointment, Invisible Life is a haunting drama that quietly celebrates the resilience of women even as they endure beaten-down existences. Ainouz’s expert modulation of tone ensures that the long film keeps surprising us with new turns, frequently marked by ravishing use of Schiefer’s score, combined with piano passages from Liszt, Grieg and Chopin. Nowhere, however, is the music more powerful than in the emotionally loaded scene in which Euridice finally gets to audition for the conservatory, playing Chopin’s Etude Op. 10, No. 9 in a triumph blunted once again by crushing reality.
Cast: Carol Duarte, Julia Stockler, Gregorio Duvivier, Fernanda Montenegro, Barbara Santos, Flavia Gusmao, Maria Manoella, Antonio Fonseca, Cristina Pereira, Gillray Coutinho
Production companies: RT Features, Pola Pandora, Sony Pictures, Canal Brasil
Distribution: Amazon Studios
Director: Karim Ainouz
Screenwriters: Murilo Hauser, Ines Bortagaray, Karim Ainouz, based on the novel by Martha Batalha
Producers: Rodrigo Teixeira, Michael Weber, Viola Fugen
Executive producers: Camilo Cavalcanti, Mariana Coelho, Viviane Mendonca, Cecile Tollu-Polonowski, Andre Novis
Director of photography: Helene Louvart
Production designer: Rodrigo Martirena
Costume designer: Marina Franco
Music: Benedikt Schiefer
Editor: Heike Parplies
Sales: The Match Factory
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
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