A sweeping drama about two sisters who lose track of each other but never forget one another, Invisible Life navigates the internal and external lives of two very different women connected in ways no one but them can understand. Though directed and written by a man (Karim Aïnouz, who co-wrote with Murilo Hauser and Ines Bortagaray), the film is an adaptation of a 2016 novel by Martha Batalha, who creates women of such depth and nuance that each of the sisters comes to embody the devastating effects of a far-reaching, inescapable patriarchy.
Set in Brazil in the 1950s, Batalha’s narrative echoes those of Partricia Highsmith (author of books including The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Price of Salt, later adapted to the Cate Blanchett film Carol) in their mid-century era and attention to interpersonal relationships across class, gender and time. As we first meet them, sisters Guida (Julia Stockler) and Eurídice (Carol Duarte) are carefree teenagers living with their parents in a middle-class home where their mother tends to the chores and their father runs a bakery. When his boss comes to dinner one night, Guida fakes sick and asks Eurídice to cover for her while she sneaks out to meet a Greek sailor she’s fallen in love with. Eager to please her big sister even if she’s uneasy with deceiving their parents, Eurídice agrees, only to regret it when Guida telegrams the next morning that she’s eloped with the sailor on a boat bound for Greece.
It’s here that the trajectory of the two women, once so interwoven, tragically cleaves, a divergence driven by shame, desperation and one heartbreaking lie. Guida returns to her parents’ home in Rio, pregnant and alone, only to be rejected by her conservative, rigid father who lies and tells Guida that Eurídice, a talented pianist, has fulfilled her dream and moved to Vienna to study at the conservatory there. In fact, Eurídice married the son of her father’s boss and lives in her new family home nearby, but their father insists she’s never told that Guida returned and is looking for her. In the best light, it’s a deception with good intentions, but it’s a deception nonetheless, one that has ruinous effects on both the women’s lives.
Centered as it is on the sisterly bond between Guida and Eurídice, Stockler and Duarte each shine as women doing their best to go on with life, albeit forever incomplete without their sibling. Guida, the older of the sisters, is the more brazen, bold personality, who rallies her own inner strength when circumstances require it even as she pines for the only family member who loved her unconditionally. Stockler’s performance manages a delicate balance of fortitude and vulnerability. The younger of the two, taller and more delicate than her sister, Eurídice finds it easier to go where she’s pointed in life while retaining the glimmer of her own dreams at her core. Duarte channels these opposing characteristics in perfect measure, absorbing the scene around her and owning it as well.
As the years pass and each woman forges a life for herself, each playing the cards she’s been dealt as best she can, there’s a raw, saturated feel to the film that only amplifies their struggles. Rio’s heat is nearly palpable throughout, the glistening skin and open windows creating a tangible sense of oppression on top of the weight each woman carries inside. Sex factors heavily into their lives, how it’s taken, given, enjoyed or endured; the physical is as exposed as the emotional in a film that doesn’t shy away from complicated themes of a woman’s role in society, in the family and in her own life and its unfolding. Coupled with a score supplemented by Eurídice’s own piano playing throughout, Aïnouz creates a world where pain, longing and unanswered questions linger just under the surface of life’s most meaningful moments.
Adapting Batalha’s novel means Aïnouz and his co-writers likely left out details—if not entire scenes—in the life of the Gusmão sisters, but you wouldn’t know it from the film’s two hour and twenty minute runtime. The filmmaker uses every moment to endear us to the sisters and see the world through their eyes, the men who seek to possess them, the friends who come to support them and the lost sibling who comes to define them. For these two, life steers them in certain directions as much as, if not more than, they steer themselves.
As the heartrending story of Guida and Eurídice comes to a bittersweet conclusion, it’s entirely reasonable to both grieve for and celebrate these women we’ve come to know quite well.