By Don Simpson | October 19, 2013
Director: Bruno Barreto
Writers: Matthew Chapman (screenplay), Julie Sayres (screenplay), Carolina Kotscho (screenplay), Carmen L. Oliveira (novel Flores raras e banalíssimas)
Starring: Glória Pires, Miranda Otto, Tracy Middendorf, Marcello Airoldi, Lola Kirke, Tânia Costa, Marianna Mac Niven, Marcio Ehrlich, Treat Williams, Anna Bella
When poet Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) first travels to Brazil in 1951, it is to visit her best friend from Vassar, Mary Morse (Tracy Middendorff). Bishop plans on staying a few nights with Morse and her lover, the famous Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares (Glória Pires), on their Samambaia estate. A socially timid and emotionally frigid woman, Bishop seems a little embarrassed by Morse and Soares’ displays of affection. Bishop is also caught totally unaware when she discovers that Soares and her friends know and love her poetry.
When Bishop extends her stay in Brazil indefinitely, she begins a relationship with Soares, much to the disdain of Morse. Soares tries to appease both women by giving them exactly what they want — a beautiful workplace for Bishop and a adopted baby girl for Morse — but the love triangle wreaks havoc upon Bishop and Morse’s friendship, pushing Bishop into a nasty spell of alcoholism. Regardless, the emotional whirlwind snaps Bishop out of her writer’s block, so much so that she ends up winning a Pulitzer Prize.
Bishop and Soares then begin to drift apart because of their careers. Soares lands a career-defining opportunity to design Flamengo Park in Rio de Janeiro, while Bishop accepts a visiting lecturer position at New York University. Morse sees their separation as an opportunity to finally get Soares back, but instead Bishop’s absence sends Soares into a mental hospital for severe depression. If you know anything about Bishop’s biography, you know that things do not end pretty.
For a film that seems like it should be overly melodramatic and ripe with emotions, Reaching for the Moon opts for frigid and sterile performances. Every time a character verbally expresses an emotion, it almost catches me off-guard. While they seem jealous of each other on countless occasions, there are not any scenes that convince me that any of them are actually attracted to each other. This is due at least partly to director Bruno Barreto’s classical approach to the production. There are countless scenes during which Reaching for the Moon plays like a Merchant Ivory film; the narrative is so slow and meticulous that it negates any feeling the characters might have for each other.
However, if you are a fan of mid-century architecture and interior design, Reaching for the Moon is pure eye candy. Lensed by cinematographer Mauro Pinheiro Jr. with production design by José Joaquim Salles, Reaching for the Moon is like a virtual journey through a museum of 1950s design. Focusing so much on the visuals, Barreto is clearly making a statement about the influence of the environment in which Bishop wrote, thus downplaying the human emotions that contributed to her success as a poet.