In the opening shot of “The Heiresses,” a sharply detailed first feature from Paraguayan writer-director Marcelo Martinessi, the camera peers through a doorway into a shadowy dining room. Much later, it will stare meaningfully down a driveway that leads out into the brighter world beyond.
The contrast between these two images is hardly accidental. Together they sum up the linear progression of the movie, which brings us in and out of a household that has fallen on hard times. Once proudly filled with the trappings of wealth, it is now just shelter and, it becomes clear, something of a prison.
Speaking of prison: One of the two mistresses of the household, Chiquita, or Chiqui (Margarita Irún), is sent to jail for a few months, thanks to a fraud conviction resulting from unpaid debts. Chiqui takes this development in stride, making it clear she knows how to take charge and adapt to difficult circumstances. The few glimpses we eventually see of her behind bars, where she quickly bonds with her fellow inmates, could easily have furnished their own movie, one rich in local insight into prison life and penal corruption.
But the narrative focus of “The Heiresses,” though it takes a while to reveal itself, is firmly on the other woman in the picture. Chiqui’s longtime partner, Chela (Ana Brun), has little of her better half’s confidence or practical smarts. She resents that they’ve had to sell their silver, glassware and other possessions — most of which, she sullenly points out, they inherited from her family — and treats the mere act of rising from bed as an imposition. From all the pains taken to keep her comfortable, even as her world slowly crumbles around her, you suspect that Chela will be more aversely affected by Chiqui’s prison stint than Chiqui herself.
In one telling early scene, Chiqui teaches their new maid, Pati (Nilda González), how to arrange the tray of coffee, diet soda and pills that Chela relies on every day. Despite significant differences in geography and milieu, it’s fascinating to consider this exchange alongside a more prominent recent standout of Latin American cinema, Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” which pointedly captured the dissolution of a 1970s Mexican middle-class home largely from a domestic worker’s perspective. You might also sense echoes of “Summer Hours,” Olivier Assayas’ masterful 2009 movie about a family inheritance and the stubborn feelings we can invest in something as deceptively simple as a piece of bric-a-brac.
“The Heiresses” has a different objective in mind, and presents us with a separate magnet for our sympathies. The movie, which won two awards at last year’s Berlin International Film Festival (including an actress prize for Brun’s exquisitely fine-grained performance), welds subtly pointed social commentary onto a straightforward but satisfying narrative of self-discovery. Martinessi dramatizes how Chela, until recently one of the idle rich in Paraguay’s capital, Asunción, learns to cope with her loss of status and encounters a new world of social and romantic possibility.
She stumbles onto this world after an imperious older neighbor, Pituca (a splendidly sour María Martins) asks her to drive her to a card game and insistently pays her for it. We’ve already seen Chela angrily reject the charity of her friends, but driving Pituca and her fellow players becomes a comfortable routine and a decent source of income. It also threatens to become something more when she meets Angy (Ana Ivanova), the stunning — and stunningly self-assured — daughter of one of the card players, whose conversations with Chela reveal her to be a much freer but possibly kindred spirit.
There are aspects of Chela’s outer world and inner life that remain frustratingly and intriguingly beyond our grasp. We briefly see her painting and playing the piano, suggesting a life once steeped in the arts. That she and Chiqui have lived together for years as a lesbian couple is treated with quiet matter-of-factness, though at least one scene suggests the flickering undercurrents of oppression and subjugation that still exist within a nominally accepting society.
But if some questions remain unanswered, Brun’s performance provides much of the clarity we need. What ultimately makes Chela’s gradual transformation so persuasive and moving is that it seems to play out almost entirely in the actress’ face, in the widening of her eyes and the gravity of her silences. Her quietly puzzled reactions to the world around her — as in the frequent shots of her waiting in someone else’s foyer, framed between two absurdly large statues — tilt the movie amusingly toward satire. But they also awaken a deeper understanding, as if only after being divested of her comforts can Chela finally see them for the shackles they were.
Spanish dialogue with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle’s Glendale, Glendale; Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills; Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino; and Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, Santa Monica