In a fortuitously timed sharing of information, the preliminary results of an MIT study on loneliness called bioRxiv were published in late March, as much of the world was on lockdown. An analysis of brain scans in people who signed up to be deprived of food and human contact in 10-hour lab sessions found, according to Scientific American’s write-up of the study (which has not been peer-reviewed, for what it’s worth) that, “both loneliness and hunger share signals deep in a part of the brain that governs very basic impulses for reward and motivation. The findings point to one telling conclusion: our need to connect is apparently as fundamental as our need to eat.”
In another example of extraordinary timing, a movie that explores the emotionally calamitous effects of familial estrangement is now streaming on Amazon Prime. Brazilian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz’s Invisible Life was woefully overlooked in its limited theatrical release last year (it was robbed of Oscar and Golden Globe nominations). Now that it’s available at a time when there isn’t much else to do but be planted in front of your TV, I urge you to check it out.
If you can handle it, that is. This movie, simply, fucked me up. It tells the story of two young adult sisters, Guida (Julia Stockler) and Eurídice (Carol Duarte), who spend much of their lives cruelly separated, unaware of each other’s whereabouts. When we meet them, they’re living with their parents in 1950s Rio. Guida, the more free-spirited of the two, runs off with her boyfriend to his homeland of Greece. Eurídice, an aspiring professional pianist, stays behind and marries. When Guida returns to Rio, unmarried and pregnant, her father angrily disowns her and lies that her sister has left the city to study music in Vienna. Eurídice isn’t informed that her sister has returned to the city. The women are at the mercy of their father’s selfish sense of shame, and they don’t even know it.
Over the next few years, the sisters lead at times parallel lives in the same city without knowing how close they actually are. Guida faithfully writes her sister letters, sending them to her parents’ house where they are intercepted. The voice-overs reading these letters serve as the film’s de facto narration. Meanwhile, Eurídice’s musical aspirations are frozen when she becomes pregnant earlier than planned (it’s implied that her husband’s refusal to pull out upon ejaculation, as agreed, is the cause). An attempt to secure an illegal abortion is thwarted when her doctor calls her husband to congratulate him. Guida attempts to apply for a passport for her son to visit Vienna, where she thinks her sister is but is told that she cannot do so without his father’s approval—an impossible thing to secure from an entirely absent parent.
Patriarchal structures oppress the women, who make due through their bonds with other women. Family friend Zélia (Maria Manoella) educates Eurídice about sex and tries to help her get an abortion, while Filomena (Bárbara Santos) helps care for Guida’s son in addition to a slew of other children in their impoverished neighborhood while Guida works several jobs. Eurídice’s husband Antenor (Gregorio Duvivier) is a barely competent schlub who is as traditional as his wife’s father. He consistently attempts to deter her from leaving the home to pursue her dreams.
The hyper-saturated lighting and costumes, the florid strings, the intense interrogation of its women characters’ emotions imbues the film with a retro-melodrama appeal, akin to the work of Douglas Sirk and other makers of so-called woman’s films in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. Guida is an archetypical fallen woman who suffers greatly as a result of her perceived transgressions. But Aïnouz, via a screenplay by Murilo Hauser adapted from Martha Batalha’s novel The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao (which I understand is much lighter than this film), is clear in his morality: Guida’s punishment of estrangement from her sisters is not just desserts but severe injustice in a world that rarely extends justice to women. Aïnouz invests in his characters’ emotional lives, effectively picking up the slack for the men that surround them and control every facet of their mobility.
Despite the movie’s throwback nature, there’s nothing campy or kitschy to behold. Aïnouz takes melodrama extremely seriously and understands its great expressive power. He harnesses it to devastate. After playing our heartstrings like a prodigious harpist for two hours, he saves his best trick for last. It’s hard to put into words how emotionally effective the last 20 minutes of this movie are via this device of Aïnouz’s, and to do so would be to spoil it anyway, but the sense of loss is emphasized in such a way that I found it almost impossible to endure. Aïnouz turns up the emotion from red heat to white. It is unbelievable to come away feeling so hard about fiction, especially when a director is not even subtle in his manipulation. That he pulls it all off, thanks in no small part to the titanically empathic performances of his principle leads, is simply masterful. There’s something so cathartic and hopeful in watching loneliness rendered into art.