Reaching for the Moon

July 26, 2014
Miranda Otto in 'Reaching for the Moon' (2014)
Miranda Otto in 'Reaching for the Moon' (2014)

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;” wrote Elizabeth Bishop, in One Art, the poem that gets most traction in Bruno Barreto’s bio pic, Reaching for the Moon.
“so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.”

It’s an obvious choice for a feature poem, as it reveals much about Bishop’s spikey, self-absorbed personality. The last stanza says it all:

Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
The art of losing’s not too hard to master
Though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

We’re encouraged to identify the “you” in the poem with the Brazilian architect, Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom Bishop spent 15 years. This film concentrates on that period, building up a double portrait of two brilliant women with antithetical personalities.

The film shows how Bishop travels to Brazil in 1951 to visit her old college friend, Mary (Tracy Middendorf), who is living in Petropolis with the wealthy architect, Lota. At first Elizabeth is an irritating house guest, but she and Lota will discover a powerful mutual attraction. Mary is sidelined, pacified with the promise of an adopted child to raise, while poet and architect become a couple.

It seems that all relationships between two strong characters, be they heterosexual or homosexual, take the same course. There is the wariness of first meeting, as mighty egos size each other up. Next comes the electrifying discovery of the intellectual and imaginative worlds held in common. Weeks, months or years down the track, it all ends in tears. It may not be very different with the most ordinary relationships – few of us can take pride in always making the right choices.

The narrative in this film is largely a vehicle for an examination of these remarkable women. Miranda Otto has spoken about immersing herself in Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and letters, and everything she could find out about her biography, in preparation for this role. Her portrayal is presumably true-to-life, but she makes Bishop seem a lot softer and more vulnerable than I would have imagined.

No-one who knows poets entertains any illusions about their heightened sensitivity as human beings, and Bishop was a writer of unusual rigour and precision. She also had that trait shared by almost every major American writer – she was an alcoholic who would go on benders when the words weren’t flowing.

Even when Bishop is writing in a personal vein, as in One Art, there is an air of formality. Critics will tell you the poem is a villanelle – a highly structured form of 19 lines, with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The conventional interpretation is that the rigid structure of the poem is a way of keeping emotion in check. The more she insists that the art of losing is easy, the more we must understand it as a source of unbearable pain.

Poetry, by its very nature, is a confessional art, but Bishop was always anxious to preserve her privacy and avoid categorisation. She had no wish to be known as a lesbian poet or even a female poet. The technical nature of her verse is a way of insisting on her sheer competence with no extenuating circumstances. It’s a useful corrective to those gay or feminist ‘artists’ who believe that gender or sexual preferences provide a licence for self-indulgence. I remember Patrick White grumbling somewhere about how he hated “gays”.

Lota, given a forceful incarnation by Brazilian actress, Glória Pires, was another example of an exceptional woman who insisted on being known primarily for her work and ideas. The conjunction of these two self-made, self-reliant artists is a promising subject for a film, but Barreto tends to rush where he should have lingered, and to lay on the syrup when a scene needed to be handled with delicacy.

The complex emotional entanglements of Elizabeth, Lota and Mary are poorly developed in the script, with egregious background music being used to compensate for the deficiencies. The score by Marcelo Zarvos is so heavy-handed it serves as a constant distraction – fine for a soap opera but murderous for any film with serious pretentions. It’s a very simple lesson: when it comes to conveying intensity in the cinema, music is rarely so effective as silence.

Reaching for the Moon
Directed by Bruno Barreto
Written by Matthew Chapman & Julie Sayres, from a novel by Carmen L. Oliveira & a screenplay by Carolina Kotscho
Starring Miranda Otto, Glória Pires, Tracy Middendorf, Marcello Airoldi, Treat Williams
Brazil, rated PG, 118 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 26 July, 2014.