I had hoped for more from this movie, considering its pedigree: director Bruno Barreto (View from the Top, Four Days in September, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands); the excellent cast, including Miranda Otto (Lord of the Rings); and the compelling true story that it's based on. I read the book "Rare and Commonplace Flowers" in 2005, and my late Brazilian husband, architect Sylvio de Vasconcellos, knew all the main characters personally, so maybe I was expecting more content than could possibly be squeezed into a 2-hour film.
For those who aren't familiar with the story, American poet Elizabeth Bishop arrives in Rio de Janeiro on a freighter in 1951. She has a ticket to travel around the world and is taking advantage of the stopover in Rio to see her friend from Vassar, Mary Morse. Bishop is 40 years old and already well known for her poetry, having recently completed a stint at the Library of Congress in the position that was later to be called "Poet Laureate."
A self-declared lesbian with a string of lovers in her past, she soon discovers that Mary is living with Lota de Soares Macedo at a beautiful inland retreat not far from Rio. The scenery is breathtaking - and how could it not be? The views of the Brazilian landscape are worth the price of admission.
Hours after her arrival, Bishop bites into a caju fruit (the fruit that bears the cashew nut at its tip) and has a violent allergic reaction that nearly takes her life. She misses her boat and ends up remaining in Brazil for 15 years in a ménage à trois with Lota and Mary. It's worth noting that Bishop gets by on a fairly decent inheritance from her family and Lota is in similar circumstances, only much wealthier. This is a story about rich people who have a lot of time on their hands.
Otto's interpretation of Bishop is delicately nuanced; she does a masterful job of capturing the poet's moods and quirks. Glória Pires is powerful as Lota. From the old photos online, it would appear that they each bear a strong resemblance to the real person they are portraying. Yet somehow I didn't feel the chemistry between them, or with Mary. While the compulsive attraction between and among them is key to the story, it just didn't work for me. Also, I didn't feel the characters age, or the tensions deepen, over or the evolution of the 15-year relationship. Lota ultimately has a nervous breakdown, which is blamed on Bishop. We see her go straight from commander-in-chief of an enormous landfill project (creation of Rio's famous Flamengo Park) to a pathetic shadow in a mental hospital. If Bishop was the cause of Lota's breakdown, as a movie-goer, I want to understand why.
On another level, I was expecting credit where credit was due in the creation of Flamengo Park. Lota is billed as its creator and "architect," but the park was famously designed by architect Affonso Eduardo Reidy and landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx.* Lota had no formal training in architecture. Furthermore, the house where she lived, which in the movie she claims she designed herself, was in fact designed by architect Sérgio Bernardes. He won a prize for it in 1953 at the II São Paulo Bienal.**
Still, if you want a movie that takes place in a beautiful setting and celebrates the accomplishments of two very strong, very independent women who broke the cultural mold of their time, you will be rewarded.
* For the story of my acquaintance with Burle Marx, see http://www.findingmyinvinciblesummer.info/2013/01/06/roberto-burle-marx/
** For the true story of Flamengo Park and Lota's house, see https://coisasdaarquitetura.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/a-arquitetura-do-rio-de-janeiro-vai-ao-cinema/)