The very private American poet Elizabeth Bishop was famously opposed to the confessional style favored by her peers: “Art just isn’t worth that much,” she once wrote to her friend Robert Lowell. It’s not damning, then, to say she’d have been mortified by Bruno Barreto’s intimate, affecting, somewhat lumpily paced biopic, which focuses chiefly on Bishop’s 15-year lesbian relationship with headstrong Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Boasting intelligent performances by Miranda Otto and Gloria Pires as the chalk-and-cheese lovers, attractively mounted pic could please older upscale auds, while also working the more genteel end of the LGBT fest circuit.
Longtime Brazilian director Bruno Barreto’s first English-language effort since the 2003 Gwyneth Paltrow flop “View From the Top” follows his 2000 romantic comedy “Bossa Nova” in demonstrating the spell cast by his homeland over Americans abroad; though obviously a more serious-minded effort, “Reaching for the Moon” does similar favors for the Rio tourism board.
Based on Carmen L. Oliveira’s novelistic 2002 biography “Rare and Commonplace Flowers,” a bestseller in Brazil, the pic wastes as little time as possible north of the equator. A pre-credits sequence set in 1951 New York establishes that 40-year-old Bishop (Otto), having recently completed her stint as national poet laureate, is feeling creatively blocked; after dismissing her latest stymied attempt at a poem, the supportive but critical Lowell (Treat Williams) suggests a vacation is in order.
Bishop swiftly sets sail for South America, planning to spend an initial weekend with old college friend Mary (Tracy Middendorf) before travelling on. Staying on the idyllic country estate Mary shares with her lover, Lota (Pires), Bishop is nonetheless keen to leave: The uptight poet and the proudly bohemian Lota strike up an initially hostile relationship, though it’s clear that mutual attraction is at the heart of it. When a health scare forces Bishop to extend her stay, it’s not long before the two women act on their desires, forging a love triangle with Mary that never entirely resolves itself as the three cohabitate, on and off, for the better part of two decades, adopting a child along the way.
The film’s largely nonjudgmental stance on this unorthodox, not-entirely-happy family is pleasing: “I want everything I can get,” is Lota’s unapologetic explanation for the setup. That extends to her career, in which she collaborates with conservative politician Carlos Lacerda (Marcello Airoldi) to design and build Rio’s now-iconic public park Parque de Flamengo. Bishop’s craft, meanwhile, blossoms in the balmy Brazilian climate, and she wins the Pulitzer Prize in 1956. (The film also squeezes her National Book Award into its chronology, though she won that a few years after the narrative concludes.)
For both women, however, creative success arrives at a significant psychological cost: As Bishop tumbles into alcoholism, and Lota into depression, their relationship never recovers. The film, too, takes a turn for the worse; at its most engaging when documenting the odd couple’s spiky courtship, it eventually falls into the shapeless, episodic structure of all too many biopics as the sour years rather indeterminately roll by, toward a conclusion even uninformed auds might see coming. Attention is retained by the commendably unhistrionic leads, who convincingly etch the pair’s enduring devotion even when passions run dry.
Tech credits, while not especially distinctive, are uniformly handsome, pushing the lush Brazilian scenery to the fore; by contrast, Marcelo Zarvos’ rather saccharine score could use more local color. The film is movingly bookended by two different drafts of one of Bishop’s signature poems, “One Art” — the key refrain of which, “The Art of Losing,” was the film’s more evocative shooting title — and further integration of her writing would have been welcome in this generous tribute to her life and work. (The sometime NYU lecturer would not, however, have let a glaring spelling error in the film’s closing title cards pass.)