By Peg Aloi
The film’s modulated softness, its moments of quiet, heartfelt sorrow, are testaments to a feminism that rejects political anger in order to embrace sisterly compassion.
Invisible Life, directed by Karim Aïnouz. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA.
This Brazilian film calls itself “a Tropical Melodrama” and tells a story of familial estrangement that spans six decades. Winner of the “Un Certain Regard” prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, this hauntingly sensual and moving film by Karim Aïnouz is a tour de force of cinema that firmly takes on the patriarchy. Two teenage sisters, Eurídice and Guida Gusmão (the film is also known as The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão) live with their socially conservative parents in Rio de Janeiro. In the opening scene we see them hiking in a steamy forest, the lush foliage lit with surreally rich colors and the dreamy sound of birds echoing around them. They briefly lose sight of one another and call out, a foreshadowing of the separation they will endure later.
Eurídice (Carol Duarte) is a talented pianist who dreams of a music career, while Guida (Julia Stockler) talks of little else but the sexy sailor she’s been sneaking around to see at night after her parents have gone to bed. Guida rather unexpectedly elopes with the sailor, leaving a letter for her sister that says she has gone to live in Greece. Eurídice is groomed for an arranged marriage, but just after her wedding Guida returns, pregnant. She is thrown out of the house and disowned by her parents; they tell her that Eurídice is in Vienna studying music. Each sister assumes the other is living a life in a glamorous foreign city. But that is because of their parents’ deception. In truth, they’re only a few miles apart.
Despondent and desperately missing her sister, but knowing nothing of her return, Eurídice tries to send letters to Athens, while Guida writes notes to Vienna. Meanwhile, Eurídice’s marriage to an older man begins with a drunken wedding night, devoid of pleasure, and the bride’s loss of virginity is somewhat perfunctory and brutal. Eventually the couple manages to create a comfortable arrangement and have children, though Eurídice’s dream of being a classical pianist is put on hold. Guida winds up living elsewhere in Rio, in a working-class neighborhood whose inhabitants include a prostitute and local matriarch named Filomena (Barbara Santos), who takes in Guida with her illegitimate child.
The years pass. The letters from Guida to her sister are read in stark voice-over. They are full of childlike questions and repressed regret, as if the years between them have been more like weeks. Despite living in the same city, Eurídice’s middle-class existence and Guida’s struggles as a single mother working two jobs means that they exist in different worlds. Still, one night they both come very close to meeting, only seconds and inches away from one another: the encounter is so agonizingly close that it stands as one of the most suspenseful moments of cinema I’ve ever witnessed. Yet the scene is surprisingly devoid of sentimentality or manipulation: the cruel physics of time and space separate two women who are never out of each others’ thoughts or hearts.
Played from their teens through their 30s by the same actresses, the sisters’ parallel lives are exquisitely rendered through moments both banal and dramatic, underscoring the struggles of women in a sexist enclave and era. Eurídice tries to cope with an unwanted pregnancy during a time when birth control was not easily accessible for women in Brazil; hours after giving birth, Guida tries to reassert her desirability and freedom by way of an encounter with a stranger. But the film’s modulated softness, its moments of quiet heartfelt sorrow, are testaments to a feminism that rejects political anger in order to embrace sisterly compassion. The sisters live through the years, never giving up on the possibility that they will reunite and share their lives once more. Their hope transcends their regret; the “invisible life” is a palpable act of imagination, like a magic spell, catalyzed by the power of compassion to heal and mend what has been separated.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.