Early on in the gorgeous Brazilian movie “Invisible Life,” a young bride, Eurídice (Carol Duarte), gets sick shortly before she and her new husband, Antenor (Gregorio Duvivier), can consummate their union. Maybe it’s something she ate, or an attack of nerves, maybe her unspoken suspicions about her arranged marriage are violently expressing themselves.
More or less confirming the latter, Antenor helps her clean up in the bathroom but wastes no time picking up where they left off. When he proudly drops trou, she emits an exhausted, mirthless laugh; you may want to cry well before this deeply moving, slowly blood-boiling movie is through.
Winner of the top prize in the Un Certain Regard program at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Invisible Life” was adapted by Murilo Hauser from Martha Batalha’s 2016 novel, “The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão.” Directed by the gifted Karim Aïnouz, the movie tells the story of Eurídice and Guida (Julia Stockler), two sisters in 1950s Rio de Janeiro who are cruelly, pointlessly deceived and forced to live apart for years. It’s a drama of resilient women, thoughtless men and crushingly unrealized dreams, told with supple grace, deep feeling and an empathy that extends in every direction.
As will surprise no one familiar with Ainouz’s gifts as a cinematic sensualist (“Futuro Beach”), the movie is also a drama of intensely humid, warm-to-the-touch atmosphere, starting with a prologue that pulls you in with lush jungle scenery and fills your ears with the sounds of rushing water. (The gorgeous widescreen images of this self-billed “tropical melodrama” were shot by Hélène Louvart, the superb French cinematographer on “Happy as Lazzaro” and “Beach Rats.”) As Eurídice and Guida wander among the trees, they lose sight of each other and begin calling out, in a moment that foreshadows the greater separation to come.
Life can change in an instant and it does so frequently over the course of this decades-spanning narrative. It begins one night when Guida, the more impulsive and independent-minded of the two sisters, sneaks away from a family dinner to meet a boyfriend; she winds up running off with him to Greece, where he lives. The news comes as a shock to her family, and when Guida returns home to Rio several months later, single and pregnant, her sympathetic mother (Flávia Gusmão) wants to take her back. But her father, Manuel (António Fonseca), a strict, easily shamed man, turns her away and even lies to her about her sister’s whereabouts, telling her that Eurídice has gone off to music school in Austria to become a pianist.
There’s a particular cruelty in the lie that Manuel tells Guida, using and even exploiting a dream of Eurídice’s without actually letting her realize it. In reality, Eurídice has been married off to Antenor and is still living in Rio, where she will soon contend with an inconvenient pregnancy of her own, derailing or at least delaying her musical ambitions. We hear Eurídice play the piano several times throughout “Invisible Life,” once to entertain her parents and a dinner guest, and later in her home, where Antenor has a habit of interrupting her mid-piece. Only late into the film does Aïnouz show us Eurídice playing, without interruption, for herself and a few attentive listeners, her music becoming an achingly lovely manifestation of her long-stifled voice.
The narrative toggles fluidly between Eurídice and Guida, gathering emotional force and exquisite tremors of suspense as they live parallel lives in the same enormous, teeming city. The performances by Duarte and Stockler feel beautifully harmonized even when the two actresses aren’t sharing the same space. Guida refuses to return to her parents’ house but never stops trying to find her sister, and her handwritten letters to Eurídice help us keep track of the passing years: Guida takes a factory job and gives birth to a son, whom she raises with the help of a kindly prostitute, Filomena (Bárbara Santos); together they become a wonderfully unorthodox family. Eurídice has a daughter, sidelines her piano playing and puts up with Antenor; their marriage is a complex study in relational nuance, full of mutual resentment but also a kind of resigned affection.
The sins of the patriarchy are fairly out in the open in “Invisible Life” — Manuel’s dogmatic conservatism, Antenor’s man-child ignorance — but there are no easy or one-note villains. For the director as well as the audience, hating the men in this movie is of secondary importance to loving its women, as Aïnouz so clearly does. That love extends also to Filomena and perhaps most of all to a character played by the great Fernanda Montenegro, whose quietly touching performance casts the story in a wrenching but also consoling new light.
Aïnouz is working firmly and confidently in a grand tradition of melodrama; there’s a hint of Douglas Sirk, a master of the form, in his expressionistic use of color, particularly cool greens and warm reds, to heighten the intensity of his characters’ emotions. It’s instructive that the movie’s English-language title has been truncated to “Invisible Life,” making clear that this isn’t just Eurídice’s story; it’s implicitly a story about innumerable unseen women, in 1950s Brazil and beyond, who have toiled and suffered, rebelled and prevailed.
Rated: R, for strong sexual content/graphic nudity and some drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 19 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 20, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles