“Invisible Life” opens with two sisters hiking through a lush green jungle. As they make their way, they lose sight of each other. This scene captures the benign scenario of losing a sibling. It lasts minutes; you know they are just ahead. But the fear of the worst still rises within you.
The worst case is what the rest of the movie painfully illustrates. These two sisters, Guida and Euridice, will find themselves soon separated again. This time, much more permanently.
“Invisible Life” is based on Martha Batalha’s novel “The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao,” originally published in the film’s language, Portuguese. The story uses the two sisters to illustrate the harsh realities of being a woman in 1950s Brazil.
Guida and Euridice are just beginning adulthood, but they already have high ambitions. Guida wants to be deeply in love with and loved by a man. And at the exposition, she thinks she has found the one — Iorgos, a Greek sailor who her father will never approve of. Euridice is intensely focused on her piano lessons, as she dreams of studying in Europe at the prestigious conservatory in Vienna.
But the world is not ready for women with ambitions. The girls’ father, Manuel, looms large over their lives, and it is obvious he is displeased with his daughter’s antics. Their mother lives in his shadow, the quiet housewife following his wishes.
But Guida is impatient. She is young and in love and believes it will last. One night she sneaks out of the house with the help of Euridice to meet Iorgos. Euridice expects to let Guida back in at 1 a.m., but Guida never shows. Guida has eloped with Iorgos to Greece, promising via letter to return soon enough.
She does return, but not under the circumstances she expected. She arrives alone, broke and pregnant. Her father is so ashamed of his daughter that he banishes her from the house. To protect Euridice from this shame, he lies to Guida, telling her she has achieved her dream and is studying in Vienna.
In reality, Euridice herself, pushed by family and friends into a relationship with a man named Antenor has married. Still she continues to focus on auditioning for the conservatory, avoiding pregnancy as long as she can.
It is here that the narrative of the melodrama becomes clear. We watch as these sisters strive to still find fulfilling lives and not forget each other. Guida writes letters to Euridice for years, sending them to her parents’ home in hopes they will send them on to Vienna. They never do. Euridice becomes equally desperate for information on her sister, eventually hiring a private detective to try to track her down.
“Invisible Life” is gritty, and it’s uncomfortable. Director Karim Ainouz creates an unflinching and honest narrative. The two female protagonists are not overly glamourized; they are real. The sex scenes are devoid of passion and feminine pleasure. They are stilted and awkward.
The film casts the patriarchy in a deservedly dark and menacing light. It is a specter holding these women’s heads underwater and forcing them apart. Neither can find support in their surroundings, and neither can find the unconditional love and happiness they had with each other.
This is a raw feminist work, not forcing an undeserved sense of empowerment into a narrative where there is nothing redeeming for these women. It highlights contemporary issues like women’s right to choose, poverty and equality in the workplace. It is a historical melodrama but is equally apt for our times.