Most countries in Latin America were heavily built based on the concept of stratified classes. But if in decay elsewhere, classicism, one of the many long-lasting consequences of economies based on slavery and worker’s exploitation, is still alive and well in the region. Paraguayan director Marcelo Martinessi’s first feature film, « Las Herederas » – literally translated into English as « The Heiresses » and currently part of this year’s Berlinale Competition program – is set in the contemporary Paraguayan society, a country that, like many of its neighbors, still attaches someone’s value to their origin, family name, and how much they own.
In a large colonial-style house, Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun) have been living together for many years. The once-opulent home, decorated with expensive artwork and furniture, now also show its signs of decay. Behind a semi-open door, Chela quietly observes when an elegant, aristocratic-like seller asks for prices and details of the objects displayed. The house owner doesn’t want to be seen: having to sell prized family objects would be to admit social defeat.
Chiqui, who looks physically closer to the Paraguayan indigenous inhabitants, is vibrant and energetic. She’s the one walking around and getting things done, including giving out orders to the couple’s domestic worker – a part-luxury-part-cultural trait they are not yet willing to let go of. It’s not her family possessions that are being sold, her wife affirms! Chela, the white descendant of a traditional family, seems depressed and dependent, unwilling to participate in the couple’s social activities. She spends much of her time staring at nothing and nowhere, perhaps trapped in the past that is no longer her reality.
Things – and times – have changed. Chiqui is about to start a prison sentence for fraud, a consequence of her failure to keep track of the family’s finances. Only a selected few know her real destination. To others, a life keeping up with appearances finds other excuses – « she’s in Punta del Este! », some believe. Chela, a painter, cannot afford the family’s expenses nor their many legal bills. She’s also too proud to accept the financial help her friends put together, a pay-back for all the many times they were the ones taking care of others.
A same-sex older couple, Chela and Chiqui have already reached the point where memories of their past together are blurred, so long is the duration of their relationship. « We did this when you turned 50 years old, remember? », Chiqui asks Chela at a certain point, hoping to convince her to join a party Chela hesitates to go to. « No, it was for my 40th birthday », she replies. To imagine Chela will now have to take control of her surroundings, even if for only a while, makes us wonder what could possibly happen. She certainly doesn’t seem fit for the role.
Martinessi’s directing style is interesting as, oftentimes, it seems he films his character’s lives precisely through the many cracks that start appearing in this once perfect structure. Down hallways or through open doors, from windows and through prison cells, we observe their lives and the changing dynamics. Often, we feel as if walking behind them, peeking over their shoulders and observing a family life, intimate moments we’re not so sure we should have access to but are thankful for seeing nonetheless.
The micro-world of a prison is also portrayed in realistic and – why not – colorful ways. This is South America, after all, and although these women are confined, there is still a clear sense of community around them. There are those performing jobs, offering services, forming and breaking relationships. Social networks exist and are alive – even if in exchange for a cigarette or two. Chiqui adapts easily, she perfectly reads her spaces and, being in charge of herself and her personality, navigates these spaces at ease. She’s unaware of what Chela continues to sell in order to keep going, as well as the job opportunity that presents itself to her, entirely by chance.
When an older neighbor requests – or rather, demands – Chela drives her to a card game with friends, she sets in motion a window of opportunity that will start Chela’s process of liberation, one that allows her to regain control of her own self. Pituca (María Martins), the « Gossip Golden Girl », is slanderous and unapologetic, and is responsible for the film’s stingiest and funniest moments. Completing the main cast is Ana Ivanova as Angy, exuding confidence and a sexuality that is liberating for those who meet her.
These characters are so well-crafted that we are led to understand each of their diverse needs, connecting with them in different ways. From Chela’s powerful glare, one that grows and changes from fear and unfamiliarity to feeling in control, to Chiqui’s self-affirming posture, Brun and Irun are fabulous in their roles. It’s about them, for them, with women completely at the forefront. Men, when they appear on screen are either blurred, far away, or performing a quick task, and that’s fine.
But because wealth is also a prison, and the more one has the more they wish to have, there’s also a lot of freedom in learning – even if by force – to let go. Gradually, we witness Chela’s transformation, one that allows her to finally smile, and imagine the many possibilities life still has to offer. Just like Chela’s gradual transformation, « Las Herederas » is a beautiful slow-burner, a fine-tuned character study, as well as an analysis of Paraguayan society and the nature of money, wealth and sexuality. Enjoy it, they don’t come like this that often.
(Photo still courtesy of lababosacine)
Director: Marcelo Martinessi (also known for “The Lost Voice” and “Calle Ultima”.)