Sunday, December 1, 2013

Reaching for the Moon

Another biopic, this one of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop, is the best of the week’s offerings.

It’s called “Reaching for the Moon,” and it stars Miranda Otto in a performance that seems at first to be full of little tics, until you realize how uncomfortable Bishop is around other people. Getting nowhere with her writing in New York, she travels to visit Mary, a college friend, in Brazil. The trip, scheduled to take two weeks, ends up lasting fifteen years.

Mary lives outside Rio with a woman named Lota (Gloria Pires), a politically connected architect tapped to design the city’s largest public park. The outspoken, dark-complected Lota takes Elizabeth’s breath away, and soon Liz replaces Mary as Lota’s lover (though Mary sticks around to raise the child she and Lota adopt). It’s hard to translate even great poetry to the screen, but director Bruno Barreto does so here. We see the work that goes into Bishop’s poems, yet they still sound perfect and effortless, their meaning enriched by a lesbian relationship far richer and more complex than that of “Blue is the Warmest Color.” This is a relationship of time and hard work, one tested by the tumult of Liz’s drinking and the vicissitudes of Lota’s standing with the Brazilian press. 

And, too, this is one of the two most beautiful films of the year, along with the similarly stately “Leonie.” Dona Lota’s estate – and in particular the treetop glass workspace she carves into a mountainside for Liz – must be seen to be believed. Two scenes of women washing Lota’s hair – first Mary, then Liz – are as sensuous and experiential as any since “The Hairdresser’s Husband” two decades ago. If you don’t like the movie, you’ll find it slow. If you do – if you allow its languor to wash over you – you’ll call it deliberately paced. Either way, it should appeal to those still suffering from Merchant-Ivory withdrawal.

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