Reaching for the Moon
This may be one of the most interesting films to reach the U.S. film festival circuit this year - a modestly budgeted yet thoroughly engaging exploration of the complicated love affair and working relationship which blossomed between American poet Elizabeth Bishop and Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Director Bruno Barreto (Dona Flor & Her Two Husbands, Last Stop 174) examines these two seemingly disparate yet equally strong-willed women as they struggle to express themselves creatively, dissecting in the process the manner by which poetry is composed & grand design realized.
Bishop’s chronic bouts of depression masked a reserved demeanor that frustrated her compelling drive towards self-expression; increasingly discouraged by an inability to give shape to own thoughts, Bishop (Miranda Otto) accepted an invitation in the early 1950’s to visit Mary, (Tracy Middendorf) an old college friend then living quasi-asexually with Soares on the latter’s sumptuous estate in the hills overlooking Rio.
The impetuous and flamboyant Soares (sensuously portrayed by Gloria Pires) promptly fell in love with the diminutive Ivy League poet, yet insisted on establishing a ménage a trois with Mary who was intent on adopting a child. Despite the improbability of the situation, all three women settled into highly productive lives in Soares’ expansive mountain home. Blessed with ideal conditions for the quiet ruminations her work required, Bishop went on to produce Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry while Mary raised a lovely daughter with Soares even as the latter used her political contacts, social position and unique skills in landscape design to first champion and then manage the creation of Flamengo Park, Rio de Janeiro’s answer to New York City’s famed urban open space.
But the stresses inherent in maintaining this uniquely triangular lifestyle led Soares into obsession with her work and gradual mental decline. Bishop responded by returning to the U.S. to write and teach. Given this opportunity, Mary reasserted control over her relationship with Soares, even to the extent of destroying the letters she wrote to Bishop pleading for reconciliation. When the two lovers finally reunited in New York City, their relationship took a tragic if preordained turn.
Barreto’s singular achievement in exploring the creative process couldn’t have been accomplished without the outstanding performances of these three actresses. As Mary, Middendorf has the thankless task of portraying a rather mousey woman caught between her iron-willed mate and the latter’s brilliant but irascible lover whom the besotted Soares dotes on. Otto’s maddeningly stoic facial expressions and the flat inflections of her perfectly constructed sentences render her portrait of Bishop nearly impenetrable, a frustration the actress slowly erases as her character refuses to live life on Soares’ rules.
But this film belongs to Pires; she radiates sensuous allure, indomitable spirit and the knowing selfishness of a spoiled child. Imperious one moment, coquettish the next and impossibly alluring throughout, this 50 year old Brazilian actress with nearly that many roles to her credit (and 16 acting awards) gives a performance that rivals Cate Blanchet’s self-destructive socialite in Blue Jasmine as the best performance by an actress this year.
Fine performances like these are usually the result of a seamless collaboration between actors and the screenwriter who supplies their dialogue. Yet this script’s the work of a committee; two Americans with a host of television work to their credit produced the final screenplay, which was in turn based on an earlier one by two writers given “source” credit along with the author of a novel on the Bishop/Soares relationship whose title translates roughly into English as “Flowers, rare and trivial”.
Cinematographer Mauro Pinheiro captures the lush beauty of Brazil’s landscape, visually underscoring the lubricious nature the lovers have for each other, epitomized by highly ritualized shampoos which occur through the film. They signal the director’s sly but generous treatment of three unconventional women colliding and rearranging their various relationships with the violence and precision of molecular fusion.
The Verdict? A small but remarkable film with a blisteringly magnetic performance by Soares at its core.
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