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‘Invisible Life’ Film Review: Brazilian Saga Follows 2 Sisters Torn Asunder

Karim Aïnouz’s beguiling Cannes winner explores women suffering at the hands of cruel men

Karim Aïnouz’s beguilingly stunning “Invisible Life” is Brazil’s latest cinematic treasure. Even as the country’s conservative government threatens to cut the funding to the robust film scene that has given us critically acclaimed works like “Aquarius,” “Neon Bull” and “The Second Mother,” there are works like “Invisible Life” that remind international audiences of the stories the nation is fighting to tell in the face of adversity.

“Invisible Life” is a tale of two sisters in 1950s Rio de Janeiro. Guida (Julia Stockler), the slightly more adventurous one, escapes from a family dinner one night to go out with a mysterious suitor, a Greek sailor. She disappears the next morning, leaving behind only a note and one of her grandmother’s earrings she had left with the night before.

Her sister, Eurídice (Carol Duarte), blames herself for covering for her sister to leave the family without so much as saying goodbye. Time passes, and so does love. When Guida returns to Rio alone and pregnant, her father Manoel (António Fonseca) throws her out of the house and threatens to do the same to Guida’s mother, Ana (Flávia Gusmão), if she doesn’t follow his lead. He decides never to tell Eurídice, now a newlywed herself, that her sister has returned and that he has banished her to a life of poverty in Rio’s streets.

That dramatic decision almost plays out as you expect it to, yet Aïnouz’s film is too beautiful and too full of surprises to be entirely predictable. Through his direction and the lens of cinematographer Hélène Louvart (“Happy as Lazzaro,” “Beach Rats”), the movie casts a romantic sheen over Rio’s dense foilage and weather-beaten homes. The setting is colorful, and Aïnouz plays on these attributes with Marina Franco’s period costumes and Rodrigo Martirena’s meticulous production design.

These colors don’t just fade into the background; they consistently pop against one another, like in the early scene where Guida and Eurídice spend their final moments together. Guida slips from a respectful flowery white dress to one more suited for the samba clubs of the day, an off-the-shoulder, shimmery green outfit ready to catch her suitor’s attention. She pleads with Eurídice, still in her soft yellow dress, to go back downstairs and keep their parents and guest entertained with her piano skills. Eurídice follows her sister’s request with some hesitation.

Based on Martha Batalha’s “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmao,” the movie was adapted for the screen by Aïnouz, Murilo Hauser and Inés Bortagaray. As the sisters’ lives move through painfully different trajectories, the story reveals they are actually both forced into these invisible spaces. Guida, now living as a young woman in poverty, faces terrible obstacles trying to move through life as a single mother, society simply refusing to acknowledge her independence.

For Eurídice, she accepts the norms thrust upon her, but life as an unhappy housewife simply doesn’t sit well with her. Like Guida, she too has her own independent wants outside of a man, which in her case is childishly selfish husband Antenor (Gregório Duvivier) who tries to forbid her from continuing her piano studies. She wants to prevent having a child for as long as possible, but his selfish desires get in the way of her plan. When she learns of her condition, the darkest of composer Benedikt Schiefer’s score accompanies the announcement. The men in the movie are almost always making the sisters’ lives more difficult.

In a way, the two sisters function almost like lovers kept apart by fate. They long for each other’s company and write letters to each other over the years that never make it to their destination. The two parallel stories complement each other, contrasting the different ways unhappiness has come into their lives and continues to keep them apart. For instance, although Guida finds companionship in a good friend, Filomena (Bárbara Santos), who she describes as someone who has become a substitute for the father, mother and sister, Eurídice does not, and the isolation she feels pushes her to a dangerous point.

While their father’s cruel separation works on a literal level, it can also be interpreted as a stand-in for the way that men have separated women from one another or as an allegory for the country’s conservative leadership, a heartless move separating people from one another because of outdated beliefs. Whatever excuse there is to keep apart people who love each other is almost never reason enough. Aïnouz’s “Invisible Life” reflects the kind of love story we rarely see on-screen, and it’s a gem worth discovering for yourself.