‘Invisible Life’ Review: Sisterhood Is Stronger Than Patriarchy

There’s such a disconcerting rush of lush imagery and action in the first 40 minutes or so of “Invisible Life” that one is apt to wonder whether there’s any kind of focused narrative. But the casual misdirection is setting the viewer up for an emotional kill.

The Brazilian movie, based on a popular novel by Marta Batalha and directed by Karim Aïnouz, begins with two sisters sitting on a mountaintop; beyond them, you can see Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue. They lose each other on the way down. But not for good — or not yet.

Guida (Julia Stockler), lively and small of stature, has just discovered guys, and she’s crazy about one in particular, Iorgos, a Greek sailor. Eurídice (Carol Duarte), tall, thin, intense, is a talented pianist intent on studying at a Vienna conservatory. This being the early 1950s, their father Manuel, a baker, isn’t thrilled about either girl’s activities. Their mother, Ana, doesn’t dare a word against her husband. So the sisters confide in each other, advise each other, love each other unconditionally — although they drive each other crazy in plain sight.

The household is upended when Guida elopes with Iorgos, sailing across the Atlantic. Eurídice is pushed into a marriage with a family friend, Antenor (Gregorio Duvivier), who will keep her in Rio. On the day of her wedding, an older woman advises the virginal Eurídice — who, unlike Guida, had little interest in matters carnal — on male desire. Their wedding-night scene yields one of the movie’s most startling sights, a shot of a substantial male erection from an angle appropriate to a 3D movie. And this is not a 3D movie. Antenor is an ardent lover, which intrigues Eurídice for a bit.

Then Guida returns to Brazil, abandoned and visibly pregnant. Manuel disowns her, banishes her, and worst, lies to her. He tells her Eurídice is in Europe, studying piano. The dropping of this shoe, then, puts the narrative on a straightaway and tragically explains the title.

Guida finds a home in a vibrant slum, finds friends there, puts together a life. All the while she writes letters to her sister in “Europe,” in care of her parents’ address. Manuel and Ana hide the letters and say nothing to Eurídice, who begins to obsess about Guida, hiring a private detective to track her. Her stress affects her piano playing; once-tolerant husband Antenor gets fed up regularly and eventually goes full patriarch. The movie’s most virtuosic scene is also its most excruciating. Eurídice is dining with her father (it’s a tense lunch) at a restaurant where Guida is turned away. Each woman’s child, a stranger to the other, takes in the wonders of the restaurant’s fish tank side by side.

“Invisible Life” is a modern melodrama that’s proud to be one. Its mix of vivid period detail and raw frankness about sexuality and poverty and women’s oppression is heady and bracing; its depiction of female friendship and love is pointedly ferocious. The movie also makes a strong case that men are a leading cause of what was once called manic depressive psychosis in women.

Invisible Life

Rated R for language, themes, sexuality, a 3D-like erection. In Portuguese, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 19 minutes.

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