At the beginning of Invisible Life, Brazil’s official submission for next year’s Foreign Language Oscar category, two sisters lose sight of each other amid a tropical landscape—a brief premonition of what is to follow. The film’s setting is Rio de Janeiro circa 1951, and Eurídice (Carol Duarte) is a teenage piano prodigy who dreams of studying at an Austrian conservatory. Her older sister, Guida (Julia Stockler), has no specific vocation in mind, but intends to marry her Greek boyfriend, Iorgos—though she has yet to introduce him to her cruel, conservative father, Manoel (António Fonseca). One evening, the family is entertaining a business guest, and Eurídice covers for her sister, who steals off for a night of clubbing. Soon after, we learn that Guida has eloped with her lover and set sail for Europe, leaving Eurídice to her own devices.
Adapted from Martha Batalha’s novel The Invisible Life Of Eurídice Gusmão, the film—whose title has been truncated since it won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes in May—is a sweeping period melodrama. To that genre, director Karim Aïnouz brings an evident flair for color and florid visual style, though a couple of oversaturated, expressionistic interludes, which play like second-rate Wong Kar-Wai, are perhaps better described as overwrought. But like Wong’s films, Invisible Life incorporates a number of missed encounters—story elements that a populous urban setting naturally allows for. In terms of screentime, it’s actually not long before Guida, pregnant and without a husband in tow, returns to Rio de Janeiro. But when she arrives home, only to be promptly thrown out by her father, Eurídice is nowhere to be found, as she’s been married off to the brutish Antenor (Gregório Duvivier) in the interim. Manuel crucially and effectively keeps the sisters apart: by telling Guida that Eurídice left to study in Austria, and also by withholding any and all news of Guida’s return from Eurídice.
From this point forward, Invisible Life mostly plays up the dramatic irony of the situation, alternating between the sisters’ parallel, entirely separate lives: Eurídice maintains a middle-class existence in a loveless marriage, while keeping her musical aspirations on the back burner; Guida ekes out a living as a single mother with the help of Filomena (Bárbara Santos), an elderly prostitute who becomes a kind of surrogate parent to her. Their contrasting situations—illustrated most clearly by the period evocation of Estácio, Guida’s poorer neighborhood—establish a throughline on class relations, though the film’s focus remains on the misogynistic boundaries and bureaucracies that both sisters must navigate. “I discovered what it means to be a woman alone in this world,” writes Guida in one of a few letters to Eurídice, and the film goes on to reify that discovery time and time again. In one scene, Guida is told that even as a single mother, she needs the father to sign off on her son’s passport application; in another, she’s forced to trade sex for a few vials of morphine that Filomena desperately needs.
Much of this is relentlessly bleak and hopeless—true to reality, perhaps, but also repetitious and dramatically inert. However lushly photographed by cinematographer Hélène Louvart (who shot last year’s Happy As Lazzaro), Invisible Life’s scenes of disillusioned domestic life are, in the end, both familiar and conventional. Still, Aïnouz, to his credit, doesn’t merely build to a miserablist conclusion. Toward the end of the film, he deploys a jagged temporal leap that dispenses with the preceding dramas so decisively that the viewer is all but forced to look at them anew. The choice belatedly transforms Invisible Life from a logy, overlong present-tense story into a tenuous but moving expression of personal memory.