Bringing to light the sexual blossoming of American poet Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil, Bruno Barreto’s Reaching For The Moon loses its way in an overload of story.
Beneath An Amber Moon by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Centred around the sixteen-year-long relationship between Pulitzer Prize winning poet Elizabeth Bishop and her Brazilian lover, architect Lota de Macedo Soares, Reaching For The Moon starts and ends with the poet sitting on a bench beside the boat pond in New York’s Central Park, reciting her poem One Art to friend and poet Robert “Cal” Lowell, who chides her musings as “observations broken into lines”. It’s dispiriting enough to send Elizabeth away from Manhattan, heading to Brazil to stay with her college friend Mary, and her lover Lota. But by the end of Reaching For The Moon, Bishop’s poem contains extra verses, documenting the journey she has made as both a poet and a woman, as well as exposing the still raw loss following the suicide of her long-term partner.
Manhattan, autumn ’51. Uninspired and demotivated, Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) decides to take a trip to South America, starting in Brazil with a visit to her college friend Mary (Tracy Middendorf). The shy, stiff poetess doesn’t fit in with Mary’s stylish, bohemian set and it’s not long before Elizabeth outstays her welcome with Mary’s girlfriend Lota (Gloria Pires). But as the buttoned-up North American slowly unwinds, seduced by Brazilian joie de vivre, she also finds herself giving in to Lota’s charms – a rich and powerful architect from an influential Brazilian political family. Lota breaks up with Mary and builds Elizabeth a writing studio, where she’s inspired to pen her Pulitzer Prize winning collection North & South, A Cold Spring. But when Mary returns to their home in Petrópolis using Lota’s connections to buy a baby, it becomes an awkward threesome. And as the cracks begin to show, fuelled by ambition, anger and alcohol, something’s got to give.
Set between 1951 and 1967, Bruno Barreto sure does pack a lot into Flores Raras. The Brazilian veteran behind Four Days In September as well as a glut of home-spun movies from all across the genre spectrum, is nothing if not comprehensive in his adaptation of the women’s story, covering everything from Bishop’s childhood traumas seeing her mother committed to a mental hospital and Lota’s estranged relationship with her disapproving father to the building of Parque Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro, lesbian parenting, power-play in a ménage à trois, the poetic muse, suicide, adultery and alcoholism as well as Brazilian design and bossa nova. But the film’s strict adherence to the facts means that instead of a single dramatic thread, Reaching For The Moon descends into familiar cliché – such as the lover’s name whispered while asleep or the letters hidden by a jealous ex.
Perhaps the strongest idea behind Flores Raras is the transformative power of love that sends these two women on opposite trajectories – the feisty architect (somewhat inexplicably) made vulnerable by Cookie’s absence and government interference while Elizabeth Bishop grows in stature from the painfully shy lonely woman, buttoned up in a stiff grey suit to a tropical goddess in a colourful flowing dress, brimming with creativity and confidence. And yet this paradigm is disappointingly neat, betraying Lota’s strong character with depression and suicide at their most feeble.
Despite moving performances from Miranda Otto and Gloria Pires, Reaching For The Moon fails to get beneath the skin of a lesbian love. And apart from some hair-washing scenes that provide the inspiration to Bishop’s poem The Shampoo, the women’s relationship is sketched thinly, from a whispered “I love you” when Lota is sleeping to jealously monitoring her rival’s appearances with a pair of binoculars. For all that however, Reaching For the Moon treats its lovers like any other couple – neither prurient, indulgent nor rubbernecking. And perhaps this is gay cinema in the mainstream – their same-sex love secondary to a portrait of the great poet and Brazilian politics. But with all its stories told at breakneck speed, Bruno Barreto’s film remains little more than observations broken into scenes.
Reaching For The Moon is released on 18th April 2014 in the UK