Two Argentinean acting vets strike real dramatic sparks in “Brother and Sister,” an affectionate and melancholy look at the ups and downs of the troubled relationship between two sixtysomething siblings. Like helmer Daniel Burman’s previous work, pic nails the emotional details, but despite the penetrating central perfs, little would have been lost by shedding 15 minutes. Crisply observant, heartwarming and grown-up, this is low-key, unhurried fare unlikely to stir up much interest among younger auds, but the dependable Burman retains a faithful following that should ensure the pic some merited offshore and fest play.
After having lived most of their lives apart, Susana (Graciela Borges) and Marcos (Antonio Gasalla), now both in their 60s, are reunited as their mother, Neneca (Elena Lucena), falls ill. A dapper, soft-spoken and long-suffering goldsmith, Marcos is fearful of his overwhelming, ever-theatrical and immoral sister, who makes her money through real-estate swindles and sheer force of character.
In a beautifully understated scene, Neneca dies, and the siblings decide to buy a tumbledown mansion in Uruguay, across the River Plate from Buenos Aires. Here, Marcos meets Mario (Omar Nunez), a theater director who is using the mansion to rehearse a modern version of “Oedipus Rex.” In Mario, Marcos finds a friend after a lifetime devoted to his mother. Marcos decides to take part in the play, despite his sister’s jealous attempts to keep him out of it.
Susana feels abandoned, and it quickly becomes clear that she mostly lives in a fantasy world, spending much of her time reading her neighbor’s mail. At first, Susana is entertaining if thoroughly disagreeable; later, following a failed attempt to set up a cookery business, the cracks in her emotional armor start to show and the extent of her loneliness is movingly exposed.
At the emotional heart of the film is the truth that, despite hating one another with an intensity that sometimes verges on the psychopathic, these two characters are inextricably bound together; they might as well be married, and for all intents and purposes, they are. Script is careful to avoid sentimentality until the last few minutes, when it takes an unexpected and implausible turn.
Thesps’ level of experience is clear throughout, blending neatly with an item whose dominant tone is one of practiced ease at all levels. Borges, known domestically as a diva figure, here revels in playing a character who’s a diva in her dreams. But Gasalla, a comedian with a reputation for loudness and vulgarity, here plays completely against type as the cravat-wearing, self-contained Marcos. Crucially, there’s the sense that Burman loves them both equally.
Dialogue is calibrated to reflect the comic irritability of two people who have known each other too well for too long. The script is more interested in its characters than in its plot, and the most telling moments are often the quietest, as when the siblings, exhausted at the end of a day of mutual antipathy, settle down to watch real-life diva Mirtha Legrand on TV, a symbol of escape for both of them.
References to Sophocles, in the form of the absent but dominating mother, are nicely done but rep a rare instance of the script straining for larger meaning.