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It’s a rare experience to watch a Paraguayan film, let alone one that depicts the lives of a ruling-class lesbian couple in their late fifties. The Latin American country, which is relatively new to both democracy and homegrown cinema, has produced a handful of films, of which only a few have gone onto international film festivals. Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses is one such rarity.
Last year, it competed at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival, bagged the Silver Gateway award in International Competition category at the 20th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival and was Paraguay’s official entry to the 91st Academy Awards but didn’t make the shortlist, which was announced last month. The film, however, featured on several year-end lists, which acknowledged the best of debut features, queer and world cinema.
The film’s appeal is best encapsulated in a moment after a screening in Mumbai last year. An elderly lady rose from her seat, struggling to hold onto the mic, she declared how closely she could relate to Chela, a woman born in wealth but now struggling to find her feet. “I’m neither Paraguayan, upper-class nor lesbian,” she clarified. “But I have felt trapped like Chela.” The film is rooted at an intersection where it can be read differently depending on the viewer’s worldview —an aspect that has appealed to women at several festivals, informs the filmmaker. “The audience is not a group of people but the one person that the film touches,” he says, sipping a soft drink at a Bandra cafe one balmy afternoon.
Old and new money
Set in Asunción, the capital city emerging from the dark years of dictatorship, Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irún) are holding onto their inheritance against the changing fortunes of time. As they begin to auction their heirlooms, Chiquita is sent to prison for fraud. It’s now up to Chela to emerge out of her cloistered life and face a world that she seldom did before. “Chela has always been dead, she never had to fight for anything, [like] the social class I come from,” explains Martinessi. Describing the Paraguayan petit bourgeois as “dead”, the filmmaker expects no revolution from them. “These are people who have never struggled, so they never know how to cope with real life,” says Martinessi. Chela’s journey of self-actualisation is, in many ways, representative of an entire strata of Paraguayan society.
The tussle between the new and old money is palpable. As dictatorship is waning and democracy is on the rise, Chela and Chiquita are holding on to their status as the ruling class. There’s a scene in the film when a newly rich buyer goes through Chela’s inheritance and enquires about a bunch of orchids.
Chela sternly informs her that the flowers are not on sale. “It shows that new money doesn’t have the taste of the traditional class,” informs Martinessi. Later, as Chela takes to driving wealthy old women around town for money, the film highlights solidarity among the upper-crust and their collective pursuit to stay relevant.
The Heiresses is also among a soupçon of queer films that refrain from using sexuality as a source of conflict. “Why do all gay and lesbian films have to be around difficulties of being gay or the struggle related to sexuality?” wonders the filmmaker. But would the narrative be different, if not for the petit bourgeois bubble surrounding the characters? “Probably if Chela had been from a different social class, her relationship with sexuality was going to be completely different,” speculates Martinessi. “But the fact [that her] sexuality was her only struggle [growing up] made her discover the real-life struggles later in her life, and this is key for everything around my society.”
Much like Chela, Martinessi believes that the “homophobic Paraguayan society” ought to look beyond sexuality and focus on the socio-economic tribulations in his country. But the outcome is seldom as simple. Despite his efforts to market The Heiresses as a film dealing with class struggle and women’s liberation, it was widely viewed as a “lesbian drama” in Paraguay. “The film was a bomb in my society, it wasn’t accepted because they said, ‘How could you make a film in Paraguay, [where] we have beautiful sightseeing and music, but you choose to tell a story of lesbians?” says Martinessi.
But the backlash also brought along appreciation from the government, who recognised it as the first film from the country to compete at the Berlinale. The director and the cast were invited to the Senate, which lead to a number of walk-outs by conservative party members. “One of the senators in the room started yelling when Ana Brun was speaking,” recalls Martinessi. But on the other hand, the newly-elected President, Mario Abdo Benítez, and his wife supported the film publicly, going against the ideology of his party’s conservative voters. “I’m glad that cinema can break barriers sometimes,” grins the filmmaker.
Politics in the film, however, lurks in corners and the dictatorship is seldom addressed explicitly. “[People in] places that went through a lot of oppression, for example, South Korea or Romania, get a lot more of the film, than they probably [understand] in America,” observes Martinessi, who wanted to stay clear of “providing a history lesson”. But not at the cost of authenticity. For the prison scenes, he cast female inmates as extras as well as his neighbour’s domestic help to play the maid in the film. The Heiresses has almost an all-female cast, including extras.
Ana Brun at Berlinale
Interestingly, Ana Brun, who plays Chela and won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlinale, has never acted before. Martinessi cast her because he believed she could act with her eyes. “If she was born in France or the UK, she probably would have [had] a career similar to Charlotte Rampling. But she was born in a country with no cinema and very little theatre, so she had to support her family and be a lawyer,” informs the filmmaker. Along with Brun, independent cinema in the landlocked country is only expected to see exciting times, and Martinessi’s film will be counted among those that set the ball rolling.