Cannes Hidden Gem: 'Invisible Life' Captures Feminist Take on Rio de Janeiro

BRUNO MACHADO.
Carol Duarte (left) and Júlia Stockler play sisters coping with a world in which they can’t properly express themselves.

Karim Aïnouz drew on childhood memories of his single mother for a gritty examination of two women struggling with repression and prejudice in '50s-era Brazil.

Karim Aïnouz has a deep passion for Rio de Janeiro’s bustling, rough streets and its many marginalized lives. His critically acclaimed debut, Madame Satã (2002), set in Rio in the 1930s, was a stylized take on the story of a trailblazing transvestite singer. Aïnouz didn’t shy away from the city’s crime, grime or poverty, but he showed his characters as shrewd and resilient, and the city’s social life as rich and vibrant. Aïnouz’s new film, the Un Certain Regard entry The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, whose action takes place mostly in the 1950s, is also set in Rio. The story follows two sisters, Eurídice (Carol Duarte) and Guida (Júlia Stockler), who, once separated, struggle with their society’s entrenched conservatism. Eurídice’s housewife duties stifle her musical talent and ambition, while Guida faces prejudice as a single mother.

When Aïnouz’s producer, Rodrigo Teixeira, first read Martha Batalha’s novel of the same name— which Aïnouz adapted — he saw uncanny parallels with the director’s story. "I was raised by a single mother," Aïnouz tells THR, "and my grandmother couldn’t find work outside the house after she separated from her husband, so she worked from home as a seamstress."

Capturing midcentury Rio required extensive archival research. "I watched films by Brazilian directors, such as Nelson Pereira dos Santos, and researched photographic and oral history," Aïnouz says. "We paid special attention to women’s private lives."

Aïnouz was also inspired by a video he found on the internet, in which women of his mother’s generation spoke frankly about their first sexual experiences in the ‘40s and ‘50s, before the sexual revolution. "Watching this material made me realize that women’s lives are still underrepresented," Aïnouz says.

Aïnouz has dealt with women facing prejudice before, in his short Seams (1993) and his second feature, Love for Sale (2006). In Invisible Life, he depicts neighborhoods of different social classes, with the help of the French cinematographer Hélène Louvart, hailed for such recent projects as Alice Rohrwacher’s Happy as Lazzaro (2018).

But shooting on digital meant that Louvart had to be careful not to stray too far from Aïnouz’s gritty, yet lyrical style. It’s a sensibility that borrows from Rio’s lush geography and history as much as from Aïnouz’s fascination with popular genres, such as melodrama and soap opera. "Hélène can balance precision and poetry, which is very unique," says Aïnouz. "Since this is my first time filming in digital, our challenge was to keep the mystery in a format designed to be close to reality, and to avoid elegance. Nothing’s as boring as elegance."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's May 17 daily issue at the Cannes Film Festival.