In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Lysander remarks with considerable insight that “the course of true love never did run smooth”, a recognition that the meeting of two hearts, the coming together of what Plato called the twin yearning halves of the one soul, while glorious and overflowing with rich possibilities, is nonetheless not without its challenges.
Nowhere is this eternal truth better demonstrated in recent cinematic memory than in Bruno Barreto’s powerfully poetic masterpiece Reaching For the Moon, a film that showcases one such love story, that of brilliant American poet Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) and the visionary mind behind Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo park (which contains the moon-like lights from which the movie partly takes its name), Lota de Macedo Soares (Glória Pires).
Meeting in 1951 while Lota, a member of one of Brazil’s more prominent political dynasties, was in a relationship with Bishop’s Vasser University classmate Mary Morse (Tracy Middendorf) who Bishop had gone to Brazil to spend time with as part of an attempt to reinvigorate her dried up creative juices, their relationship at first appears to be the manifestation of the sort of rare and magical true love most people consign to Harlequin romances and Hollywood rom-coms.
But while there is undeniably passion aplenty between them, real life is far more complicated than that, and Bruno Barreto, who based the film for the most part on the book Flores Raras e Banalíssimas (Rare and Commonplace Flowers) by Carmem Lucia de Oliveira, knows it all too well.
Drawing inspired performances from both Otto and Pires, who shares the sort of on-screen chemistry that gives authentic vitality to the story of two women coming together from two very different worlds, Barreto has fashioned a film that is less a traditional biopic than a fully-blown love story, replete with all the joyful unpredictability and emotional messiness that comes from such instantly passionate, lifelong-binding relationships.
And there is no doubting from the first antagonistic sparks that bounce between the two women that they are wholly different creatures who nonetheless find in each other something lacking in themselves, a dynamic that becomes both a blessing and a curse for each of them.
Elizabeth is a child of a broken home – her father dead while she was only 8 months old, mother in a mental asylum just past her 5th birthday – an emotionally-repressed who recoils any time anyone gets too close in any way, embarrassed to hear her mesmerisingly evocative poetry read back to her or quoted in conversations.
She is a creature of the shadows, “aloof” and “imperious” to quote Lota, looking on with painful longing as the rest of the world seem to revel in rich and profound connections, such as that initially enjoyed by Lota and Mary, a relationship that endures in a cooler, more practical form after Lota decides that Elizabeth is her one true love, seemingly in a matter of days.
Lota, in stark contrast, bristles with charismatic energy, determined to wring every last drop out of life and have “everything”, her mind filled with multitudinous ideas that spill forth into the homes she designs and the gardens she lovingly tends, driven by an impetuous passion that sees her decide Elizabeth is her one and only, claiming her as her own.
For a relationship between such polar opposites, although both possessed profoundly creative talent with Elizabeth winning the Pulitzer Prize for her book North and South, and Lota being asked her friend and the Governor of Rio state Carlos Lacerda (Marcello Airoldi) to design Rio’s iconic bayside park, it is a gloriously happy one at first, with each finding complementarity in the other.
Swept up in the idea that she can love and is loveable, moody Elizabeth softens, her tightly-stitched, conservative clothing and restrained thinking giving way to flamboyancy and flair the more time she spends in Brazil, a country she comes to love even if she fails to full understand it, while Lota becomes obsessed with a woman whose poetry she has adored and memorised and lived and breathed for years, and in whom she feels she has found a kindred, if flawed soul.
It is, on first appearances, the perfect relationship.
But composed of imperfect people as all such pairings are, things begin to fray and while the passion never fully abates for Lota, Elizabeth finds herself beset by the demons that have haunted her whole life, the sense of waiting, always waiting, for what she can’t have and then when she gets it, fearing she will lose it.
It is a precarious place from which to love someone but even as passions ebb and fade, and rise again, the bond between these two extraordinary women, in a film largely populated by accomplished, strong and resolute female characters, does not diminish, a testament to the opportunities, and sadly too, limitations that happen when you truly find your other half.
There is humour too in the midst of this beautifully wrought film, which takes full advantage of Rio’s stunning coastline, and its humid, tropical jungle interior, cinematographer Mauro Pinheiro Jr. casting everything in luminous shades of yellow and white light, with Elizabeth, who struggled with alcoholism, assuring Lota at one stage that she isn’t drunk, “just crying in English”.
The movie charmingly bristles with these witty, eloquent turns of phrase, the script by Matthew Chapman and Julie Sayres making pleasingly extravagent use of Elizabeth’s propensity for bon mots of all kinds, most of which found their way into her poems, one of which One Art (see below), is quote extensively throughout the film to great dramatic effect.
As a result, Reaching For the Moon is that rare creation of modern filmmaking, possessing a literate script, subtle nuanced directing, and performances so across-the-board impressive – Treat Williams is also noteworthy as poet Robert Lowell while Luciana Souza sparkles with acerbic wit as Joana – that if there is not talk of awards for both Otto and Pires, and healthy audience numbers throughout the film’s run, then we will have definitive proof that the modern world has profoundly and chillingly fallen out of love not just just with good stories well told but with, I think, love itself.
BY ELIZABETH BISHOP
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.