Manoel Gusmão better make good Pao de Queijo, because he is terrible father. He is indeed a baker, which is almost stereotypical of Portuguese Brazilians in the early 1950s. Gusmão equates the ordinary with the respectability he craves, but sadly, his strict sense of propriety will have tragic consequences for his daughters in Karim Aïnouz’s Invisible Life, Brazil’s official international Oscar submission, which opens this Friday in New York.
It is 1951, before Facebook and internet searches. Euridice and her older sister Guida are both remarkably sensitive young women, but in vastly different ways. The former loses herself in music and aspires to a career as a classical pianist. The latter is an unabashed romantic, who is about to abscond with her lover, a Greek sailor. Alas, running away with a merchant seaman works out about as well as we would expect.
When she inevitably returns home conspicuously pregnant, Guida is turned away by her rigid father, who deceitfully claims her sister is abroad, having accepted a music scholarship in Austria. He intends to make a clean, irreparable break with Guida—and he does. Of course, the older sister writes many letters to Euridice, but they are always intercepted. Eventually, she considers her correspondence to be more of a form of therapy than communication. Yet, the two sisters who pine for each other’s company will continue to live in Rio, quite oblivious to the other’s presence.
Thusly unfolds a fable of so close, yet so far, but Aïnouz is shrewdly restrained when it comes to staging scenes of the sisters’ near misses and almost crossed paths. Rio is a large city and their respective corners of it are practically different universes. Instead, this tale is one of profound and abiding irony, in which the sister denied her birthright as a member of “respectable” society, ultimately lives a happier life toiling on its margins, with an adoptive substitute family.
This all maybe sounds like one of the more socially conscious Globo evening soap operas, but visually Invisible Life is a feast of deep saturated color, evocative lighting, rich textures, and lovingly crafted period trappings. This is a tactile film that puts you physically into the kitchens, factories, and parlors of 1950s Rio. You can almost smell the feijoada and feel the trembled breathing.
Just as Guida’s storyline is more interesting and proactive than that of the more passive Euridice, Julia Stockler’s performance is much livelier and more passionate as the former than Carol Duarte’s moody and reserved portrayal of the younger sister. Barbara Santos is also charismatically earthy as Filomena, the retired prostitute who becomes a surrogate mother and sister to Guida.
As their problematic father, Antonio Fonseca puts an indelible stamp on the film in a way that is simultaneously monstrous and pathetic. Frankly, the prominent billing for the “participation” of Fernanda Montenegro, the grand dame of Brazilian cinema and the only Brazilian ever nominated for a best actress Oscar somewhat overhypes her involvement, but she is still quietly devastating in her late scenes as the elderly Euridice.
In terms of narrative, you could say not much really happens during the film, just the Gusmão sisters’ entire lives. In fact, their separation and yearning hits a deep archetypal nerve, but the film really gets its power from Helene Louvart’s dreamy cinematography. This is the sort of film you let yourself sink into. Aïnouz’s somewhat languid sense of pacing quite suits its neon and gossamer visual style. Surprisingly, it has a rather Euro vibe and sensibility, despite being so deeply rooted in its Brazilian setting. Highly recommended, Invisible Life opens this Friday (12/20) in New York, at Film Forum.