'The Heiresses' ('Las Herederas'): Film Review | Berlin 2018

Drive, she said.

A hulking old Mercedes becomes both a vestige of lost financial security and a vehicle for emancipation in this quiet drama about a middle-class Paraguayan woman set adrift.

A withdrawn, middle-aged gay woman slowly inches out of the shadows of her dissatisfaction as she's forced to navigate a life separated from her more outgoing partner of 30 years in Paraguayan writer-director Marcelo Martinessi's intimate first feature, The Heiresses. Minor-key and subdued to a fault, the drama nonetheless builds emotional involvement by infinitesimal degrees through its acute observation of characters and social context and its ultra-naturalistic performances. The relative scarcity of female-centric queer cinema from South America should guarantee continuing interest from festival programmers following its premiere in the Berlin competition.

Men are entirely peripheral presences here, seldom heard and glimpsed only from circumspect distances or evoked in references to imperfect marriages or relationships. It's tacitly acknowledged, however, that they are the architects of a national history of political, social and economic upheaval. The women in Martinessi's film to some extent owe whatever resilience they possess to their marginalized status, their willingness to hold their own counsel. They traditionally have accepted the rewards of being part of a moneyed class, without any of the responsibilities for the imbalance of power.

Chela (Ana Brun) is jolted out of that limbo by uncomfortable circumstance, when her longtime partner Chiquita (Margarita Irun) is convicted on fraud charges as a result of their spiraling debt. As they prepare for Chiquita's imprisonment, still pursuing legal channels in the hope of clemency, they begin selling off the valuable contents of their large house. The more pragmatic Chiquita has always managed their lives, while Chela, a painter, tends to remain cloistered at home. With a meticulously prepared tray at her side each day holding coffee, water, pills and other personal effects, she's a premature sedentary old lady.

The friction of the early scenes is perhaps a little too understated as Chela chafes at the loss of inherited family possessions, listening behind doors as well-heeled female buyers come to inspect her crystal glassware, antique furniture and paintings. She seems insensitive to the losses that the more toughened Chiquita also is absorbing, and leaves much of the legal negotiations to their trusted friend, Carmela (Alicia Guerra). Chela barely acknowledges Pita (Nilda Gonzalez), the uneducated new live-in maid Chiquita has hired to take care of her partner's needs while she's gone.

Chela initially remains numb even after Chiquita goes to prison, though the hive of community activity in the rowdy courtyard on visiting days is like another planet compared to her gloomy house, with its echoing footsteps and ghostly faded patches on walls where pictures once hung.

She experiences a different type of female community when an older, unmarried neighbor, Pituca (Maria Martins), perhaps wary of the wave of abductions in the city, asks Chela to drive her to her regular ladies' afternoon card game. Too mired in inertia to invent an excuse, Chela reluctantly gets behind the wheel of her late father's boxy old Mercedes, another item up for sale, and a car she's barely driven in years.

In an amusingly imperious, sharp-as-a-tack characterization with a tart-tongued gossipy streak, Martins injects a welcome shot of acidic zest into her too-brief scenes. When Pituca insists on paying Chela for her trouble, prideful resistance clearly is pointless. Before long, Chela finds herself with a busy network of frequent passengers and a growing confidence as an ad hoc taxi driver. Being a member of the workforce is something new for her. But the real catalyst for change is the younger Angy (Ana Ivanova, fabulous), the daughter of one of Pituca's circle, whose sensual physicality, self-possession and candor about her free-spirited romantic life make her a magnetic personality for the timid Chela.

Martinessi avoids predictable pathways in the evolution of that new friendship, and yet while Chela's frozen inability to act on her impulses keeps her mostly still confined to the sidelines of life, the sense of something awakening inside her is conveyed in delicate strokes. (The occasional obvious metaphor, like the spilling of the tray, can be forgiven.) There are moments of tenderness, particularly in Chela's increasingly warm interactions with the innately compassionate Pita; and outward signs of personal rediscovery, such as greater attention to her appearance. But the small epiphanies remain mostly internalized, and the open-ended conclusion points to a future of light and possibility, without the need to spell everything out.

In keeping with Martinessi's measured approach, Brun's performance in the central role is muted and rigorously unshowy, an aspect reinforced by the detached, often trailing gaze of Luis Armando Artega's camera. Yet even in casual moments, such as Chela examining her face in the car's rear-view mirror wearing chic sunglasses, there's a poignant sense of renewal in progress. The film doesn't come close to the soaring emotional peaks of, say, Sebastian Lelio's Gloria, another intimate look at a middle-aged woman's emergence from emotional confinement. But there are quiet rewards here for the patient viewer.

Production companies: La Babosa Cine, Pandora Filmproduktions, Mutante Cine, Esquina Films, Norsk Filmprodukjson, La Fabrica Nocturna Productions
Cast: Ana Brun, Margarita Irun, Ana Ivanova, Nilda Gonzalez, Maria Martins, Alicia Guerra
Director-screenwriter: Marcelo Martinessi
Producers: Sebastian Pena Escobar, Marcelo Martinessi
Director of photography: Luis Armando Artega
Production designer: Carlo Spatuzza
Costume designer: Tania Simbron
Editor: Fernando Epstein
Sales: Luxbox
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)

97 minutes