Greetings again from the darkness. It would be a tight race to determine which is rarer: a Paraguayan film with distribution, or a movie centered on a middle-aged lesbian couple together for 30 years. The first feature film from writer-director Marcelo Martinessi is remarkable in its level of quiet, as everything that matters lies beneath the surface. Neither happiness nor sadness is particularly obvious at any given time.
Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun) live in the capital city of Asuncion and are both from wealthy families. They are in the process of selling off family heirlooms from their large (and well worn) house due to the debt run up by Chiquita ... a debt that has her headed soon to jail after being found guilty of fraud. Chela, the introverted artist, is embarrassed and withdrawn by their situation, whereas the more affable and gregarious Chiquita takes it all in stride. We can't help but notice that the items being sold and this couple's relationship both seem relics of the past, trapped in a time warp.
Confinement and restrictions of movement play a role for both women. Obviously Chiquita is confined to jail, while the cave-like house surrounds Chela. Early on, we see further contrasts. Chiquita flourishes in jail, while Chela struggles with the placement of her coffee cup on the silver serving tray delivered by her maid (Nilda Gonzalez). In fact, the hiring of a maid is somewhat confounding to us - who does that while selling off furnishings to make ends meet?
Although Chela refuses help from the friends she has generously assisted over the years, circumstances are such that she kind of falls into a private uber-taxi business for the local ladies (doctor appointments, card games, funerals, etc). Chela slowly begins to discover living life again. After years of not driving, she's a bit nervous at first, but driving the car is her literal vehicle to a new life approach. Her jail visits with Chiquita are a bit awkward, but things turn for Chela when she meets and becomes enamored with Angy (Ana Ivanova). Angy is a lively woman who ignites interest and hope within Chela. As an object of desire, Angy excels ... turning Chela on to designer sunglasses and cigarettes.
All three lead actresses are relatively inexperienced, cinematically speaking; yet each delivers an exceptional performance. Ms. Irun is a stage veteran, while Ms. Ivanova has a terrific screen presence. Most remarkably, this is Ms. Brun's first movie role, and she excels as a quiet listener and silent observer through doorways. As she emerges from the shadows, her transformation offers hope, while still remaining cloaked in sadness. A more experienced actress might have instinctually offered up a more showy performance, though Ms. Brun's Chela is what keeps us mesmerized.
To call this film female-centric is an understatement. The few men are mere blurs on the screen. It's no wonder the film has been so well received at festivals, as the story, performances, music and camera work offer something a bit out of the norm. It was Paraguay's submission for Best Foreign Language Oscar, and it would have fit quite comfortably with the final nominations.