Film review of Reach for the Moon: Cristo Redentor! This one nearly reaches the stars

Taking Carmen L Oliveira’s bestselling 2002 biography, Rare and Commonplace Flowers, as its source material, Reaching for the Moon is an intimate portrait of the 15-year-long relationship between American poet Elizabeth Bishop and Brazilian socialite and architect Lota de Macedo Soares. The film is Brazilian director Bruno Barreto’s first English-language offering since the dire Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle View from the Top (2003) and the 1930s screwball comedy-inspired Bossa Nova (2000).

The opening scene set in Central Park in 1951 establishes that 40-year-old Bishop (Otto), having recently completed her duties as poet laureate, is suffering from writer’s block. After dismissing her latest stifled creative attempt as unfinished and half-hearted, her supportive and caddish muse Robert Lowell (Williams) suggests that a change of scenery may revitalise her.

Bishop takes Lowell’s advice and heads to Brazil to visit an old school friend Mary (Middendorf) for what she intends to be a short, distractionary trip. Staying at an idyllic country estate just outside Rio, which Mary shares with her lesbian lover Lota (Pires), Bishop is nonetheless keen to leave quickly, finding the Brazilian joie de vivre far too sunny and superficial for her introvertedly dour and dark disposition.

The repressed and sheepish poet and the confident and boisterous Lota initially clash horns, but when an allergic reaction (to food but possibly also to Brazil) forces Bishop to extend her stay, it’s not long before the two women bond, both physically and otherwise, forcing an apathetic Mary into accepting a lesser role in this fledgling family trio.

The absence of a pointed and dramatic focus on this unorthodox family is certainly where the film shines: “I want everything I can get” is Lota’s confidently unapologetic explanation for her apparent ruthlessness in replacing Mary with Bishop. This attitude also extends to her career, in which she happily collaborates with conservative crony politician Carlos Lacerda (Airoldi) to design Rio’s iconic Parque de Flamengo. Simultaneously, Bishop’s writing blossoms in this stimulating new environment, and as a consequence she is awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1956.

The outside world is almost entirely kept at a distance in Reaching for the Moon – despite a military coup in Brazil, the political situation is only briefly alluded to when Bishop awkwardly and memorably slams the happy-go-lucky Brazilian mentality during a dinner for the local elite – and the narrative focuses inwardly on the cocooned environment of the three women as they slowly begin to physically and psychologically unwind.

The implication here is that they are above, and independent of, the fray that surrounds them; partly due to a need to hide their sexuality from a less than tolerant 1950s society but also from a class perspective. Reaching for the Moon thus focuses on the tumultuous love story of the characters rather than offering an underlying socio-political statement.

For both women, creative success arrives at a significant psychological cost. As Bishop tumbles into alcoholism and Lota into depression, their relationship unsurprisingly suffers. The film follows suit and eventually crumbles into the shapeless, episodic structure of far too many biopics, as the darker years rather indeterminately roll by towards a punctured and predictable conclusion.

The cinematography, while not particularly distinctive, is selflessly supportive of the narrative, and quietly pushes the lush Brazilian landscapes to the fore. By contrast, Marcelo Zarvos’ syrupy score is less successful and often jarringly leads the emotional balance astray. The film is symmetrically framed by two of Bishop’s signature poems, although a greater integration of her writing into the script would have been beneficial in revealing more of the subtleties of her life and work.

Reaching for the Moon

Dir: Bruno Barreto; Braz drama, 2013, 118 mins; Miranda Otto, Glória Pires, Tracy Middendorf, Marcello Airoldi, Lola Kirke, Treat Williams
Premiered October 17
Playing nationwide

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