Just beyond the grasp

Photo by Lisa Graham / 2012 © L.C. Barreto Center: Marcello Airoldi as Carlos Lacerda, Glória Pires as Lota de Macedo Soares, Miranda Otto as Elizabeth Bishop and Tracy Middendorf as Mary, in "Reaching for the Moon."

Photo by Lisa Graham / 2012 © L.C. Barreto
Center: Marcello Airoldi as Carlos Lacerda, Glória Pires as Lota de Macedo Soares, Miranda Otto as Elizabeth Bishop and Tracy Middendorf as Mary, in “Reaching for the Moon.”

‘Reaching’ doesn’t quite get Bishop right

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  Brazilian director Bruno Barreto’s 19th feature film tells the based-on-truth tale of Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Elizabeth Bishop (played by Miranda Otto) and her unexpectedly amorous sojourn to Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s and ‘60s — where she pursued a fiery but ultimately failed lesbian relationship with the domineering architect Lota de Macedo Soares (Gloria Pires).

While there are plenty of reasons to enjoy this one — beautifully cascading images of Rio, intense performances by the leading ladies and the deep interest the story will undoubtedly draw from fans of Bishop and classic poetry — the director’s superficial tendencies left me feeling not quite wooed.

Barreto has said that he never intended the film (whose screenplay is also based on the bestselling Brazilian novel “Rare and Commonplace Flowers”) to be a biopic of Bishop. Rather, he sought to present a story about love and loss. But it’s going to be difficult for audiences to buy that sentiment, given that Barreto never actually touches a feeling of deep universality over the course of his retelling. Instead of watching those broader themes of love and loss develop solidly throughout the film, we get very personal, back-and-forth, even jumpy moments of dialogue between Bishop and Lota — along with a good deal of somewhat contrived tension between the two women and Bishop’s old college friend Mary (Tracy Middendorf), who was living happily with Lota before Bishop came along and, although not maliciously, stole her gal.

On the other hand, Barreto does a good job of evoking the particular atmosphere in which these women lived, without being distracted by a need to make this look like a “period” film. As Bishop and Lota tumble along, we’re guided subtly by history, most notably when Brazil’s 1964 military coup left the women on opposite sides politically, since Lota — in the midst of designing Rio’s famed Flamengo Park, maintained a tight political connection to the city’s governor, who fully supported the coup.

In the end, it may have been Barreto’s details that killed the experience for me. Nearly every image in this film, while utterly beautiful, is dripping with tired aloofness and a very classed sense of privilege. Bishop, Lota and Mary have all the time in the world to quibble and make up simply because they’re portrayed as people who, in the end, don’t really give a damn about anything that doesn’t involve their own pettiness. The question is, how am I supposed to relate to this as a grand story about love and loss — rather than a simple biopic — if I can’t attach myself to the characters in any meaningful way?

One overlooked aspect that Barreto does include is the fact that Lota, to ease the tension between her and Mary, adopts a baby girl for the two of them by literally purchasing the child from a hopelessly impoverished Brazilian mother. If Baretto was in fact seeking to tell the grandest story — the most pure — wouldn’t it have been the story (albeit somewhat more fictional) of that mother and her nameless child?

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