'Invisible Life' Review: An Unabashed, Affecting Brazilian Melodrama

There came a point early on in Karim Aïnouz's drama of separated sisters, Invisible Life, where I wondered if the way he depicted a scene veered a little too sharply into the melodramatic and borderline hysterical. Then I remembered how the poster billed the film: a tropical melodrama. Once I reset my bearings a bit, I found the narrative quite engrossing and the story rather moving.

"Melodrama" often carries a pejorative connotation, a malady from which I am not exempt as shown by my near dismissal of Invisible Life from the jump. The term makes for a frequent descriptor tossed out when emotion gets dialed up to unrealistic or exaggerated levels. It's used to decry the efforts of filmmakers who go big when they should instead go deep and mine the interiority of their characters. These grandiose moments serve as a cheap substitute for feeling rather than the way they should in the hands of a gifted practitioner like Aïnouz. Invisible Life provides artistic representation of the quiet tragedies and unspoken miseries affecting individuals. (Women in particular, as marginalization can often amplify the tensions.) In doing so, it offers a similar scale of sensation to the audience as is experienced by the characters themselves.

Why this quasi-academic rambling about the nature of the genre to which Invisible Life belongs? It's of the utmost importance to understand the tradition and context in which Aïnouz operates. Without this knowledge, the film would probably feel like a carousel of misfortunes befalling siblings Eurídice (Carol Duarte) and Guida (Julia Stockler) in mid-20th century Rio de Janeiro. The former sticks around Brazil to please her family, yearning to spread her wings as a classical pianist yet seeing them clipped by her partner in a loveless – and often abusive – marriage. The latter, on the other hand, elopes with a Greek sailor only to return pregnant and abandoned soon after. Yet their family's strictures around tradition, honor and gender performance prevents the sisters from ever knowing that they walk the same city streets once more.

The sense that Eurídice and Guida are rendered ships passing in the night, unable to share the burdens that crush them in Brazil's heavily patriarchal society, lends a pervasive aura of sadness to the film. They're separated by life's circumstances but inexorably connected by the inevitable struggles endured by Brazilian women. Their geographical proximity provides no comfort and only serves to underscore the larger challenges faced by women. So much basic freedom, dignity and autonomy remains in sight yet just outside their grasp. It's in this intractable, untraversable gap where the exquisite melodrama of Invisible Life organically arises.

Aïnouz treats their situation with great empathy and sincerity, never allowing compassion to spill over into pity. The only time he ever asks the audience to view Eurídice and Guida as anything other than human is to illuminate the systems that keep them oppressed and unable to achieve their deepest desires. Otherwise, we're never encouraged to look down on them or consider ourselves better than them. They are us. Every vibrant color, every embellished moment and every disproportionately directed moment brings us closer to that truth.

The film also thrives on the contributions of lead actresses Duarte and Stockler, each of which bring the soulfulness necessary to make their characters elicit the kind of emotion Aïnouz aims for in his visual language. Each chafe against the norms of their time in unexpected ways, remaining resolute in many yearnings while bending to some pressures. They even find some surprising joy amidst their estrangement – Guída especially in motherhood in spite of her initial reluctance. But the very construction of Invisible Life, watching them develop simultaneously yet in isolation, always reminds us of what's missing. For the tonal and aesthetic maximalism that Aïnouz brings to the film, it's what we do not – what we cannot – see that exerts the strongest pull. While a full 140 minutes of this can get occasionally exhausting and tedious, Aïnouz makes it more than worthwhile in his stirring conclusion when the full impact of a life apart becomes wrenchingly apparent.

/Film rating: 7.5 out of 10