A “tropical melodrama” is how the marketing materials bill “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão.” If that sounds about the most high-camp subgenre ever devised, Karim Aïnouz’s ravishing period saga lives up to the description — high emotion articulated with utmost sincerity and heady stylistic excess, all in the perspiring environs of midcentury Rio de Janeiro — while surprising with its pointed feminist politics and occasionally sharp social truths. Anyone already familiar with Aïnouz’s work will know to expect a florid sensory experience, but even by the Brazilian’s standards, this heartbroken tale of two sisters separated for decades by familial shame and deceit is a waking dream, saturated in sound, music and color to match its depth of feeling. From the first, jungle-set shot, the redoubtable d.p. Hélène Louvart gives the film the daubed, traffic-light palette of a ripe mango; were it possible, you’d expect it to have an aroma to match.
Having scooped the Un Certain Regard Prize in Cannes, “Eurídice Gusmão” is now strongly positioned to attain a degree of global arthouse exposure that has thus far eluded Aïnouz’s work, for all its soulful beauty. Though some judicious trimming to the new film’s sprawling 139-minute runtime wouldn’t have gone amiss, it’s by far his most broadly crowd-pleasing and emotionally accessible narrative feature to date.
Thankfully, those virtues come at little cost to the inclusive queer sensibility that has characterized much of the director’s oeuvre, even if its narrative — drawn from Martha Batalha’s popular, widely translated 2016 novel — is ostensibly straight in multiple senses. More than one kind of sisterhood powers a story in which female solidarity, in a world of male oppression and manipulation, proves a life-saving force.
A woozy Amazonian prologue economically foreshadows the full, anguished drama to come, as the teenaged Eurídice (Carol Duarte) and her older sister Guida (Julia Stockler) lose sight of each other in the rainforest as they make their way home, ahead of a storm in the deep-pink sky. With their cries of each other’s names swallowed by their thick, iridescent surrounds, the scene feels like an unworldly nightmare, one we can imagine recurring in both women’s minds once fate separates them for real. It’s 1951, and both sisters have designs on life far away from their rule-bound family home in Rio, run by their father Manuel (Antonio Fonseca) with a mean misogynist streak.
Good girl Eurídice, a classical piano prodigy, yearns to escape and master her art at the Vienna Conservatory; good-time girl Guida, whose gifts are less obvious, must hustle out her own way to see the world. And so she elopes to Europe with a dishy Greek sailor, only notifying her appalled parents by letter after the fact, and promising to return after her marriage. Return she does, and all too soon: Sailors will be sailors, after all, and the swift collapse of her maritime fling leaves Guida alone and pregnant, only for the embittered Manuel to deny her sanctuary. Disowning a daughter in need is bad enough; more cruelly still, he tells a lie to keep the sisters apart, claiming that Eurídice has left to pursue her dream in Austria.
Would that were true. Instead, Eurídice remains grounded in Brazil, her ivory ambitions slipping away as she settles into an unfulfilling marriage to Antenor (Gregório Duvivier), a boor cut very much from the same drab cloth as her father. And so Aïnouz’s film itself finds a rhythm of undulating, fado-toned melancholy as it follows the sisters across the years, so close and yet so far apart, on separate paths that inadvertently circle each other without ever quite intersecting. Guida’s frequent letters to Eurídice, imagining and envying the life of a glamorous Continental concert pianist, are relayed in voiceover, a running device that forms the film’s plaintive psychological chorus — as years and then decades go by without a reply, the missives become an intimate confessional diary as much as anything else.
Aïnouz amps up the aching tragedy and dramatic irony of the situation to full melodramatic volume, with a sumptuous assist from Benedikt Schiefer’s score — itself supported with evocatively chosen classical piano pieces by Chopin and Liszt. One superbly choreographed set piece, seeing the sisters miss each other by seconds in a Rio cafe, is agonizing and manipulative in all the right ways. But “Eurídice Gusmão” isn’t just a symphony of misery. Flashes of joy and comradeship enter proceedings as Guida builds a new life for herself in Brazil’s slums, with wily, kindly prostitute Filomena (Bárbara Santos) as her new guardian angel; she may weather harder knocks than her sister, but finds her own kind of happiness. In this sense, Aïnouz has made both a testament to the resilience of women in a society stacked against them — there are no good men to be found in its vision of toxic patriarchy — as well as a stirring celebration of the families we create when the ones we’re born into fall away.
In a film of grand emotional gestures, the richness of “Eurídice Gusmão’s” images and soundscape is entirely appropriate: No one here is permitted to suffer in silence, much less in ugliness. Louvart’s lensing, awash in hues and forms that feel sun-ripened into a lush, squishy haze, is a constant marvel here, while Rodrigo Martirena’s pattern-splashed production design and Marina Franco’s thriftily expressive costumes play into the film’s spirit of earnest excess.
It’d be easy for the film’s leads to be lost in all that mise en scène, but Duarte and Stockler (the former stoic but steadily undone, the latter a firework gradually settling into zen calm) play their big, curving character arcs with lively gusto. Best of all, a late, piercing cameo from 89-year-old Brazilian grande dame Fernanda Montenegro — Oscar-nominated 20 years ago for “Central Station,” her face deeply storied and closely examined — cathartically gathers all the film’s loose strands of feeling to weep-inducing effect. Aïnouz’s latest film plays its audience like a violin, but when the music is this lovely, why should he not?