This is a truly ‘global’ film production as the range of funders testifies. I also noted Alan Fountain’s name on the credits. Alan was the leader of ‘alternative’ film programming for Channel 4 in the 1980s and in the 1990s a champion of independent filmmaking globally. I was shocked to discover that he died unexpectedly in 2016. Perhaps he was involved initially in this production? It must take a long time to put these kinds of films together. But if you want something different, Latin American cinema is often the best place to look these days. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film made in Paraguay by a local filmmaker before – mainly I’ve seen international or other Latin American national film industries using the country as a location.
Written and directed by Marcelo Martinessi as a first feature this is an unusual subject for a male filmmaker – a film completely about a world of women with barely a glimpse of a man in the background. Chela and ‘Chiquita’ are two women in their sixties who have lived together for thirty years and are now struggling to survive financially. The daughters of wealthy parents they are now forced to sell off the furniture and objets d’art in Chela’s family mansion in Asunción. But now the financial authorities have caught up with Chiquita’s debts and the promissory notes she has signed. She is convicted of fraud and sent to prison for what may be a few weeks or months. Chiquita is outgoing and lively and the withdrawn and now bewildered (but still cantankerous) Chela is left to contemplate life with only her new maid, Pati for company. One day, however, a neighbour calls and more or less demands that Chela drive her to her bridge game. Chela feels obliged to help and carefully navigates her father’s old Mercedes through the old residential district. Despite her protestations, Chela eventually accepts some money ‘ to pay for fuel’ and over the next few days she becomes the taxi driver for all the elderly bridge players (all women). Then she meets a younger woman at the bridge game (where she waits for her ‘clients’). Angy (Ana Ivanova) is tall and lean and street smart and Chela is smitten. I won’t spoil the narrative further but there are obvious questions. How far will Chela go in exploring her new world (at times she is almost like a teenager)? She has no driving licence and she is pocketing cash, will she end up in prison too? What will happen when Chiquita is released?
When the film began, in the dark and gloomy mansion with the camera peering out of a wardrobe or from behind a door to watch prospective buyers sifting through the family silver and crystal glass, I wondered if watching the film might be a struggle for me. It seemed a waste of the CinemaScope frame, but within a few minutes I was engaged and I found the unfolding story totally gripping as it moved slowly forward. The script is beautifully written with characters carefully observed. Ana Brun as Chela won the Silver Bear at Berlin as Best Actress and I was amazed to discover this was her first feature film (I was convinced I’d seen her before). Angy and Chiquita are similarly key roles with strong performances by Ana Ivanova and Margarita Irun, again with limited experience of feature films. The only aspect of the film that troubled me was the role of the maid. Pati is an ‘indigenous’ or mestizo character. Paraguay is an unusual South American country in which Guarani, a language of several indigenous groups is an official language of a bi-lingual state and the majority of the people can speak it alongside Spanish. It is spoken in the film. Pati has been brought up in a convent where she has learned several skills, including how to massage Chela’s feet. I think on reflection that Martinessi makes quite subtle comments about social class and ethnicity in the film and Chela’s relationship with Pati does change over the film – much as we are required to re-think any assumptions about Pati. I mention these points because the use of maids by European élites is a common feature of the narratives of several of the Latin American films of recent years that have found their way into UK distribution or the international festival circuit.
Music is an important part of the film but Latin American music culture is not my strong point. In her Sight and Sound review (September 2018), Maria Delgado explains what she calls the songs’ ‘wry commentary’ on the narrative events (but beware this reveals spoilers about the narrative). Chela is also an artist (though it is difficult to tell whether she has real talent or if it is just a hobby to pass the time) and she will have a dialogue about painting with Angy. These potentially expressive devices and the rich detail of the mise en scène suggest to me that The Heiresses is a melodrama. The film is distributed in the UK by Thunderbird and the official website includes details of where it is playing in the next few weeks. Don’t miss it if it comes to a cinema near you.