Set primarily in 1950s Rio de Janeiro, The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão is a film of dew and perspiration, of longing and pheromones.
The heat, torrid and constant, causes everything to sweat, from people to the glasses they drink from. The movie practically glistens with their labor of everyday survival. When Guida Gusmão (Julia Stockler), young and rebellious sister to title character, returns to Rio after an ill-fated elopement to Athens with an unfaithful paramour, she summarizes the sweltering atmosphere, with affection, as “I’m back in hell.”
That sense of homecoming will be short-lived. Her father, a vindictive and antediluvian patriarch, is unwilling to accept his daughter’s mistake — which is compounded by the fact that Guida is bearing her lover’s child. He banishes her from the home, and Guida vows never to return, setting in motion an epic estrangement from her sister, promising pianist Eurídice (Carol Duarte), who has settled into a life of domestic servitude and soon-to-be motherhood at the expense of her own career ambitions.
But Guida doesn’t know this. In his fit of pique, her father informs her that Eurídice, while Guida was out gallivanting in Greece, earned a music scholarship in a Vienna conservatory. For her part, Eurídice is never informed that Guida came home seeking shelter and sisterhood; as a result, both siblings imagine lovely and idyllic lives for their kin, even while both scrabble for contentment: Guida for bare necessities as a single mother, Eurídice for artistic fulfillment in a misogynistic culture that discourages it. So they write themselves letters that never seem to arrive in the hands of the recipients, and begin to function less as correspondence than diary entries — rootless, therapeutic missives of broken dreams and severed ties.
Lyrical and honest, and floridly directed by Karim Aïnouz with a palpable sense of place and a novelistic sense of sweep — it was, indeed, based on a 2016 Brazilian book of the same name — The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão’s epistolary framework rotates between the two sisters’ stories as months become years and eventually decades. Guida’s is an outer struggle of hardscrabble survival, and Eurídice’s is an inner torment for an existence that could have been, but each of the actors’ marvelous performances feels like a mirror image of the other, with narrative details that continue to link the characters, if only metaphysically.
In one of the few scenes the sisters share, early on, Guida tells Eurídice about a exciting carnal rendezvous in a bathroom stall with her Greek suitor. Later, at the culmination of Eurídice’s wedding night — in which Antenor (Gregorio Duvivier), the son of a wealthy family friend, who has been all but installed as Eurídice’s husband — their own bathroom is the setting for a humiliating and unceremonious consummation of their marriage, not the last traumatic moment in which this woman will be stripped of her autonomy.
Sexual dominance as a power play is among the film’s universal truths, but for Guida, the line is blurred. In a scene of, I would imagine, unprecedented singularity in film history, she decides to go clubbing the day after she gives birth, abandoning her newborn in the hospital. While locking lips with a stranger in a heated moment — in another public restroom — her breasts begin lactating, in a moment straight from the South American magical realist tradition. Overcome with a mix of shame and lust, she brings him to climax with her hand while her mammary glands have other ideas.
But, while Guida may control the outcome of this situation, women bear the brunt of men’s irresponsibility, negligence and selfishness throughout this sprawling canvas of undelivered letters and missed connections. The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão can be deeply sad, but it’s constructive to view the sisters as cosmically connected. Invisible though it may be, a thread of feminist rage links them through time and space, as these star-crossed martyrs swelter through a dehumanizing society. And of this, they cannot be stripped.
THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF EURÍDICE GUSMÃO; Director: Karim Aïnouz; Cast: Carol Duarte, Julia Stockler, Gregorio Duvivier, Barbara Santos, Maria Manoella; Distributor: Amazon; Rating: R; in Portuguese and Greek with English subtitles; Opens: Friday at Living Room Theaters at FAU, Tower Theater in Miami and Coral Gables Art Cinema in Coral Gables