Film Review - Reaching For The Moon

Bruno Barreto’s sumptuous, English-language biopic Reaching for the Moon (2013) follows the passionate relationship between Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto, Lord of the Rings) and Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares (Gloria Pires). It’s 1951 and Elizabeth, suffering from writers’ block, is encouraged by fellow poet Robert Lowell (Treat Williams) to try a change of scene.  Elizabeth embarks on a journey around South America and stops off to visit Mary (Tracy Middendorf) an old college friend now settled in Brazil.

Mary lives with Lota, on her beautiful landscaped country estate, where they regularly entertain fellow urbanites. At first Lota is repelled by Elizabeth’s aloofness; Elizabeth also feels uneasy and decides to rent accommodation in the city. But she falls ill and the two women persuade her to return to their home. Much to Mary’s dismay, Lota and Elizabeth’s unlikely friendship swiftly turns to love. Elizabeth moves into Lota’s home and her bed. Not wanting to lose Mary, Lota agrees to help her adopt and raise a child and she remains living with them on the estate. From the start it’s an uncomfortable love triangle, but the beginning of a hugely creative period for Elizabeth.

Lota builds Elizabeth a studio and she begins to churn out work, winning the Pulitzer Prize in the process. Lota, meanwhile, is commissioned to design Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo Park.  Elizabeth’s alcoholism begins to impact on her relationship with both women but she continues to write and be feted worldwide. Despite her tempestuous romance with Lota, she remains in Brazil for fifteen years. When, in 1967, she agrees to return to the US for a university teaching post and stays there, it is Lota who falls apart.

Cinematographer Mauro Pinheiro Jr. conveys the wild beauty of Brazil and Pires also captures the vibrancy of her native country; her character comes to represent the decadence of the era. Early on Lota tells Elizabeth that she wants to ‘have it all’ but ultimately pays the price. Otto is the perfect foil to Pires – pale, prim and proper. Despite her alcoholism, she remains dedicated to her work, rather than abandoning herself to her emotions, and in the end, it is her creative output that is her salvation.

Running at just under two hours, the pace is occasionally leaden, but for the most part this is an engaging portrait of two iconic women and a pivotal moment in Brazil’s history – the coup of 1964 culminated in the overthrow of President João Goulart. Bishop’s poem ‘One Art’ (about loss) serves as a neat framing device and there is a wealth of other detail to savour from the cars, cocktails, hair and costumes to the terrific soundtrack.

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