Writer-director Karim Aïnouz explores the unfulfilling lives of two sisters in 1950s Brazil, though the melodrama never fully ignites
As both a writer and director, Karim Aïnouz has often concerned himself with marginalised lives in Brazil, whether it be that of Madame Sata, a legendary figure of Brazilian LGBT+ history, or the stories of the Northeast, traditionally its poorest and most unequal region, across his collaborations with fellow filmmaker Marcelo Gomes.
In The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Martha Batalha, Aïnouz's attention turns to the plight of two sisters who, through the manipulative mental abuse of their father and many of the men around them, end up leading half-lives shorn of potential.
Eurídice (Carol Duarte) is a talented pianist in 1950s Rio with dreams of studying in the Vienna conservatoire. Her elder sister Guida (Julia Stockler) lacks her skills, but makes up for it with her easygoing personality, until a Greek sailor sweeps her off her feet before impregnating and dumping her. Her conservative father refuses her return, eventually lying to both daughters: Guida believes her sister is living her dreams in Europe and Eurídice believes Guida has hit hard times in Europe. Each are unaware that they’re living within the same city.
Throughout, Aïnouz stays firmly with the sisters on their parallel, largely unfulfilled lives. Each life is demarcated by clear points of doors slamming shut in the faces of the women, often a result of male entitlement: Eurídice’s ever-horny husband (Gregorio Duvivier) feels aggrieved when she sneaks off to an audition for the Vienna conservatoire, whilst Guida is unable to get a passport for her son without authorisation from his father. Be it bureaucracy, religion or plain old prejudice, the patriarchy always finds ways to keep the two women down.
That Eurídice’s and Guida’s parents are both Portuguese migrants to Brazil is subtly highlighted. The Old World’s conservatism and Catholicism is imposed upon the New World’s hopes and dreams, whilst simultaneously selling itself as a romantic riposte to the drudgery and heat of Rio’s ever-growing concrete jungle.
Yet, for all of the film’s novelistic tendencies, it feels as if there is something held back in the direction, which holds things together without ever really finding those notes of high drama or energy to really ignite the drama. The bulky middle third of the film, once the overarching direction of the plot is made clear, does little, functioning as variations on the same theme (at two hours and 19 minutes, there is definitely flab). An early visual thread on nightlife functioning as a space for liberation for the two sisters – with Wong Kar-Wai-esque tones – is quickly put aside in favour of pushing through the narrative gears. What we ultimately get is a melodrama that is not particularly melodramatic.
Still, the two leads hold up their end expertly, and The Invisible Life also functions as an evocative reimagining of 1950s Rio. An epilogue with Fernanda Montenegro (still able to effortlessly own the screen at 90 years of age) brings with it a much needed gut-punch that serves to wrap up an otherwise effective, if occasionally underwhelming, work.
The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from 15 October.Where to watch