By Mychal Shanks
Reaching for the Moon is a 2013 Brazilian film directed by Bruno Barreto starring Glória Pires and Mirando Otto. Pires stars as the famous Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares. Otto, most famous for her for her role as Eówyn in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, plays famed poet Elizabeth Bishop. Bishop, who is Soares’ love interest in the film, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1956 for her book Poems: North & South. A Cold Spring.
The film begins when Elizabeth Bishop travels to Brazil to gain inspiration for her writing. She stays with her college friend Mary Morse (played by Tracy Middendorf) and Lota. Mary and Lota live together as a couple and have created a beautiful home in a Brazilian city of Petrópolis. However, events escalate, and Elizabeth and Lota quickly fall in love. The film follows their tumultuous relationship spanning over a decade, from 1951 to 1967. Though the film is about Elizabeth and Lota’s lesbian relationship, their lesbian identity is not core to the movie.
The film tackles more on the idea of race and class rather than sexual orientation. Mary, Lota, and Elizabeth are all out as lesbians. Each one has come out to family and friends whether they are accepting or not. It is surprising that their orientation seems to not be an issue considering the period of the film. The film’s production notes describe it as “a sophisticated tale of an unlikely romance between two extraordinary artists, set against the backdrop of political upheaval and a clash of cultures.”
The unlikely nature of the relationship isn’t because they are two women, but because they are stark opposites of each other. Lota is stubborn, flamboyant, lively, blunt, and a joy to watch on screen. Elizabeth is depressed, an alcoholic, artsy, bitter, and calculating. Both women become embodiments of their racial and social standing with their different communities.
Lota and Elizabeth can both be seen as representation of their cultures. It is apparent through the use of lighting and contrast in the film. Lota is tan, long black hair, speaks two different languages – a stunning archetype of Latin American charisma. Elizabeth is translucently pale; even after years in Brazil. She is also aloof and distant. Mary represents a medium between the extremes of Lota and Elizabeth. She is tan but has blonde hair and knows both English and Portuguese but speaks primarily English. While all three women are vastly different culturally, they share a common social class.
The three leading characters of the film are truly the elite. Their glamorous lives consist of social dinners set in lavish homes. They drive nice cars, and are attended to by a small army of servants. A key take-away of this film is that class identity trumps race, gender, or sexual identity. The best example of class divide is when Mary and Lota go to “adopt” a child from a lower income woman. The biological mother has too many kids and doesn’t have enough money to feed all of them. Lota, with the help of her maid Joana, purchases the child. Despite being queer women, their class allows Lota and Mary to have the family Mary so desperately desires. Even though the audience knows Lota and Mary can offer a better life for the child, the class inequalities apparent in the scene makes the viewer uneasy.
The film is beautifully shot and tells a compelling story. If you haven’t seen Reaching for the Moon yet, I highly recommend watching it. While the love story of two women who fall madly in love in spite of their cultural differences make it a great film for a date night, the powerful messages on race, class, gender, and sexual identity in a historical context provide excellent material for deep conversations. Sistah Sinema will be showcasing Reaching for the Moon followed by a moderated discussion during the month of August. Visit Sistah Sinema on Facebook to see if it is playing in your area.
Mychal Shanks is a California native and film student with a concentration in critical studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. You can connect with Mychal on twitter @mychalshanks.