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Two sisters, separated by a lie, live out lives of longing in Brazil’s Oscar submission

  • Author: Michael O'Sullivan, The Washington Post
  • Updated: December 31, 2019
  • Published December 31, 2019

Carol Duarte, right, and Julia Stockler, left, play sisters separated by a cruel lie in "Invisible Life." (Bruno Machado)

There’s a scene in “Invisible Life,” Brazil’s official Oscar submission, set in Rio de Janeiro, in which the weather changes, in the space of a moment, from sunny to rainy.

As Eurídice and Guida, the sisters at the heart of this measured-to-the-point-of-monotony (but ultimately deeply moving) tale of unrequited sibling longing, actresses Carol Duarte and Julia Stockler embody those same polarities: the former tall, introspective and slightly gloomy; the latter short, unclouded by worry and a little wild. Mousy Eurídice, a gifted musician, dreams of studying piano at a Viennese music conservatory. Impulsive Guida, who has been dating a handsome Greek sailor (Nikolas Antunes), also yearns to drink from the world's fountain.

That's not quite the whole setup for the film, which is based on a 2016 novel by Martha Batalha. But that kicks in quickly enough, when Guida ends up making a romantic mistake that, in the patriarchal society of 1950s Rio, ends up with her being disowned by her conservative father (António Fonseca), and living in a slum in her own hometown. Eurídice, obeying her father's wishes to marry the son of a business colleague (Gregorio Duvivier), forgoes Vienna for a stultifyingly traditional marriage. (Their wedding night and subsequent erotic encounters play out like scenes of joyless mating on Animal Planet.)

Through a lie of their father's that, in the context of the film, is less far-fetched than it sounds, neither sister knows the true whereabouts of the other, with Eurídice mistakenly thinking that Guida is happily married in Greece, and Guida, for her part, believing that her sister is pursuing a music career in Austria.

The years tick by somewhat ponderously over two hours - 1951, 1954, 1957, 1958 - marked only by the dates on letters written by Guida, reading, in voice-over, from messages she sends to her parents, hoping, futilely, that they will forward them to Eurídice. Children are born, parents get sick and die, and the two women - one living in poverty but somehow finding a way to survive, even to be happy; the other waiting out her days in middle-class boredom, denied her artistic calling - never cross paths, except in one tantalizingly close call midway through the film.

Eurídice hires a private detective (Flávio Bauraqui), but that goes nowhere.

Carol Duarte stars in ’Invisible Life. ’ (Bruno Machado)

The progression of the story is steadily downward, and at times the style flirts with melodrama, the mood with moroseness.

But in the film's third act, masterfully staged by filmmaker Karim Aïnouz (who co-wrote the screen adaptation with Inez Bortagaray and Murilo Hauser), it takes a giant leap, both temporally and emotionally.

Is there a reunion? A happy ending? Let's just say there's closure: It isn't shocking, but rather a heartbreaking one - a bookend to the long, sad story that delivers, in contrast to all the dismal developments that have come before it, a kind of bittersweet satisfaction.

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Three stars. Rated R. Contains strong sexual elements, graphic nudity and some drug use. In Portuguese with subtitles. 139 minutes.

(The movie is distributed by Amazon Studios. Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.

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