Out Brazilian filmmaker’s masterpiece elicits tears and cheers

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Guida (Julia Stockler, left) and Eurídice (Carol Duarte) in “Invisible Life”, Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Out gay Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz’s sensitive melodrama, “Invisible Life,” unfolds on screen like a great novel.

And, in fact, this long (139 minutes), absorbing story about two sisters in 1950s Rio, is based on Martha Batalha’s novel, “The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmão.” The film, opening Jan. 17 at the Landmark Ritz Five and the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, won Un Certain Regard, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, last year, and was Brazil’s Oscar submission for Best International Film.

The film opens with a haunting scene that introduces sisters Guida (Julia Stockler) and Eurídice (Carol Duarte) as they become separated in a tropical rainforest. It is a harbinger of things to come, but first, the sisters are seen as youths living at home with their parents, Ana (Flávia Gusmão), and their strict, traditional father, Manoel (António Fonseca).

An early scene has Manoel’s boss, Feliciano (Hugo Cruz), coming for dinner, and there is a suggestion that his visit is to help marry off his son, Antenor (Gregorio Duvivier). Guida, however, has no interest in the dinner and conspires — with Eurídice’s reluctant help — to sneak out and meet her boyfriend, Iorgos (Nikolas Antunes), a sailor. Guida and Iorgos have a dreamlike, romantic night, and she never returns. Instead, a letter is delivered with her promise to come back.

Meanwhile, Eurídice has married Antenor. On her wedding night, there is a sex scene where Eurídice encounters her first erection, and a sinking feeling about what her life will be like now. A pianist who dreams of playing in the Vienna Conservatory, Eurídice silently acknowledges to herself that she has compromised her life with this loveless marriage.

Next, Guida reappears at her family’s home. She is single and pregnant, and Manoel kicks her out of the house for good. He also lies to her, claiming that Eurídice is in Europe. It is a heartbreaking moment for both parents and daughter, but Aïnouz wisely does not play up the melodrama. Viewers come to understand the characters and sympathize with Guida, who is at the mercy of a patriarchal society. Hoping to reconnect with her sister, she writes poignant letters (recounted in periodic voiceovers) to Eurídice and hopes that her parents will forward them.

“Invisible Life” sags a bit as it chronicles the lives of each sister living in the same city without knowing the other is nearby. Aïnoux cross-cuts between Guida, who has her baby and lives with Filomena (Bárbara Santos), a kindly former sex worker. Eurídice, herself, becomes pregnant and puts her pianist dreams on hold, again. As they eke out their lives, these resilient women experience the impact of living in a society where men rule. Guida cannot get a passport for her son without Iorgos’ approval. Eurídice is stifled by her husband’s expectations of being a housewife. Whenever Eurídice tries to raise the issue of what happened to Guida with her parents, they change the subject. She eventually hires a private detective to help find her sister.

Aïnouz films many dramatic moments through doorways or in hallways as if he is eavesdropping or spying on the characters. The film may have an epic scope — it covers multiple years in the sisters’ lives — but it feels intimate and voyeuristic. This closeness helps define the characters, who are emotionally connected as they endure considerable heartache and personal setbacks. Eurídice’s longing for both a piano career and her sister is palpable, and Guida’s strength to find and develop “another” family with Filomena is admirable. Aînouz’s film is attacking the patriarchy and showing how difficult these women’s lives are, even as they find small personal freedoms.

The film generates dramatic tension during a moment that may have Guida and Eurídice unexpectedly crossing paths. The teasing scene, which takes place in a restaurant on Christmas Eve, is beautifully directed and packs an emotional wallop. A series of conversations that come to light in the last reel follows, revealing secrets and lies various characters have kept from each other as the film builds to its powerful conclusion. Viewers may want to have tissues handy.

Both Julia Stockler and Carol Duarte give excellent performances, playing characters who feel lived in. The actresses convey so much emotion and frustration as women who are shamed and repressed in this male-dominated society. Viewers will be rooting for them to reconnect.

In support, the great, Academy Award-nominated Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro has a brief but pivotal role. It would spoil her appearance to say more, but she is magnetic in her handful of scenes.

“Invisible Life” is a rich film that will reward patient viewers who love a juicy melodrama.