Based on a true story, Bruno Barreto’s 1950s-set Reaching for the Moon follows American poet Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto) as she heads to Rio de Janeiro in search of inspiration and to visit her old college roommate, Mary (Tracy Middendorf). Sexually repressed and brooch-wearing Elizabeth is immediately taken aback by the Brazilians’ lack of ceremony and tendency to touch and hug before, during, and after conversations; she’s also weirded out by the country’s ostensibly dirty water and the black servants who surround her and help her to unpack. So she decides to leave the country almost as soon as she arrives, but after having an allergic reaction, she’s forced to stay just long enough to fall in love with Mary’s no-nonsense butch girlfriend, the architectural artist Lota de Macedo Soares (Gloria Pires, one of Brazil’s most famous soap stars, and a brilliant actress). Elizabeth and Lota develop a turbulent love affair, which pulls the poet out of her writer’s block, but also ruins Mary’s life.
Sociologist Gilberto Vasconcellos once wrote that Brazil is a country of illiterate folk where “what isn’t television has no cultural value.” One single network, Globo, monopolizes most of the country’s TV programming and film production. The fact that Globo’s idea of high quality involves blatantly imitating American TV and film’s most familiar clichés might explain why so much of Brazilian cinema feels so soullessly glossy. This is true for Reaching for the Moon, which Globo co-produced. The mimicry of a Brazilian fantasy of what constitutes a perfectly crafted American movie, neutered of all experimentation, reduces Bishop’s story to one-dimensional subject matter in the service of another project: appropriating the most orthodox way of making movies in the hopes of selling it back to the Americans as Oscar bait (the filmmaker’s brother, Fábio Barreto, was nominated in 1995 in the foreign-language category for O Quatrilho).
In a few scenes, Reaching for the Moon manages to achieve something quite brilliant. It translates Bishop’s process of crafting a poem—as an overwhelming rush and an orgasmic game of associations—through beautifully paced editing and Otto’s outstanding performance. The story of Bishop and Macedo’s ultimately tragic love affair is itself remarkable, in the way that it enmeshes with and even helps shape an extremely delicate period in Brazilian history filled with coups d’état. But Barreto’s insistence that this pass for a product that Hollywood might have spawned smoothens a journey built on sharp edges.