If you can only see one 2019 period piece foreign film about the connection between two women constantly being battered by patriarchal expectations that features a portrait of a lady that happens to be on fire…well, you should still watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but I highly doubt there will be another one to dethrone from its rightful second place spot. Brazil’s submission for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Oscars, although it received neither a nomination nor a seat on the December shortlist, Invisible Life (having previously gone by the title of its source novel, The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão in its festival run) is a towering, heart-wrenching look at sexism and repression in 1950s Rio de Janeiro that is so ruthlessly hopeless that the only thing harder to do than sit in its world for 139 minutes is dare to recommend it.
I don’t say that to imply that Invisible Life is a bad film, it’s not, but the decisions made by director Karim Aïnouz all culminate in a cinematic vice grip that elicit not tears, not empathy, just the hollow rhythm of being beaten into submission. Maybe that’s the point. Invisible Life tells the story of Eurídice and Guida, two sisters beginning their adulthood at the start of the 1950s who are removed from each other when Guida flees her family to run off with a Greek sailor she’s fallen in love with. Eurídice is left as her parents’ only child, and begins a family of her own, cutting short her dream of being a pianist. A few years later, Guida returns home, pregnant with the Greek sailor’s child and no Greek sailor on her arm. Her father, ashamed and bewildered by her actions, demands Guida leave, and tells Eurídice that her older sister had never returned from overseas.
It’s a melodramatic tale that doesn’t bear much in terms of plot or progression, instead producing scene after scene of misery and lost connections. From a missed connection between the sisters that is so close and coincidental it’s almost farcical to watch, to a litany of cruelties whose biggest horrors come in their monotonies, the moments in Invisible Life that are impactful never seem to quite come together. Nearly all of the moments are very good, and the plot is such that these scenes could stand on their own with little additions as exceptional short films, but the runtime and pervasive bleakness of the film start to wear the audience down piece by piece. I’m sure there’s something to be said about feeling what Eurídice and Guida are feeling, and 2h19 has nothing on a decade of suffering and denial, but the unhappiness the film radiates stays at a single low tone for so long that the film’s initial wounds seem commonplace and evergreen by its conclusion. When the film finally does gain some new thematic ground in its third act, Invisible Life is so far down the path of “I respect it, but I don’t think I like it” that turning back would be impossible.
Invisible Life doesn’t feel as much as it remembers. It expects the audience to come away from it with the same “thank God we don’t live in the past” feeling that it seems to be coated in. It doesn’t celebrate the resilience and stubborn grasp of life that these two women have, as much as it nods calmly in that resilience’s direction before being on its way. There are a lot of great things about the film, not the least of which are Carol Duarte and Julia Stockler’s masterful performances as Eurídice and Guida, but the overall result is messy, far too long, and repetitive. As I left Invisible Life I was relieved, not because it was an abysmal experience, but because in the event it’s ever recommended to me in the future, I can say “no, I’ve already seen it, and it was pretty good” as opposed to sitting in the banality of bleakness once more.