THE HEIRESSES

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Marcelo Martinessi

Stars: Ana Brun, Margarita Irun, Ana Ivanova, Nilda Gonzalez, Maria Martins, Alicia Guerra.

María Martins in Las herederas (2018)

It’s rare that we get to see a film from Paraguay. It’s even rarer that this deeply conservative country would produce a film about two elderly lesbians whose relationship is undergoing something of a crisis. But that’s what we get in this debut feature film from writer/director Marcelo Martinessi, who has a background in television work and has made some short films.

Chela (played by veteran theatre actress Anna Brun in her film debut) is an introverted woman in her fifties who loves to paint. She has been in a relationship with her long-time companion Chiquita (another veteran theatre actress in Margarita Irun) for the better part of thirty years. But now the two seem to have grown apart and there is a distance and lack of intimacy in their relationship.

Both women come from wealthy families but now they are facing hard times as Chiquita has run up a massive amount of debts and they are being forced to sell off family heirlooms. When Chiquita is jailed for fraud, Chela has to face some dramatic changes in her life. Chiquita has hired a maid named Pati (Nilda Gonzalez) to look after Chela and the household duties while she is in prison, but Chela feels uncomfortable with her around.

Both women are trapped in prisons of different kinds. Chela clings to the past and remains stuck firmly in her home. She finds visiting Chiquita in the prison rather arduous and a distasteful ordeal. But a chance encounter with a lively younger woman named Angy (Ana Ivarova), who is trying to escape her violent boyfriend, changes her life and opens her up to new experiences. Chela, who hasn’t driven a car for years now finds herself as a sort of self-styled taxi driver for friends and local ladies.

The Heiresses is a subtle, melancholy and glacially paced character study that also explores themes of class, privilege, loneliness, sexuality and the role and influence of women in a patriarchal society. The Heiresses is something of a reflection on the slowly changing nature of society in Paraguay. But this is a subtle film and not everything is spelled out explicitly and Martinessi’s direction is understated. A lot is said in the subtext beneath the surface.

Martinessi also explores the day to day banalities of life. He acknowledges that women are the moral fibre of society and he obviously empathises with the plight of women in his home country. He is sensitive to issues of female identity and their needs in society, and, in particular, the concerns of older women. Indeed, here the male roles are scarce, secondary and peripheral to the drama.

The Heiresses is a fairly claustrophobic film as cinematographer Luis Armado Arteaga (The Family, etc) works in close-up quite often and his camera is static. He has also shot the dark interiors of the sprawling house in gloomy lighting, creating a rather bleak mood. The prison scenes were apparently shot inside the walls of a women’s prison, lending a gritty realism and authenticity to the material. There are very few exterior shots, which reinforces that sense of claustrophobia and confinement.

The two leads come from a background in theatre and are newcomers to the screen. In her first feature film role Brun delivers a restrained, subtly nuanced and sympathetic performance. Her dialogue is sparse, but her expression conveys a range of emotions. Her performance won Brun the best actress award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2018.

The Heiresses (aka Las Herederas) was Paraguay’s official submission for the Best Foreign language film Oscar in 2019. The film has done well on the festival circuit, but will struggle to connect with an audience in general release.

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