In 1951, the American poet Elizabeth Bishop made a trip to Brazil at a college friend’s invitation. As fate would have it, that same friend was living “discreetly” with the architect Lota de Macedo Soares, best known for designing Rio’s famed Flamengo Park. Within a short time, Bishop’s arrival set off fireworks between herself and her tempestuous hostess. In Bruno Barreto’s exquisitely realized film, Reaching for the Moon — recently shown at the Tribeca Film Festival — one of the most passionate and profound love affairs ever to reach the screen belongs to these two women.

The story has been adapted by screenwriters Matthew Chapman and Julia Sayres from the bestselling Brazilian novel Rare and Commonplace Flowers. It’s an intelligent script, which allows us through brief exchanges of dialogue, to see the vast differences in culture and experiences that divide the two protagonists. But the real alchemy occurs through Barreto’s lens — particularly in the lushly beautiful mountains above Petrópolis, where Lota’s expansive property serves as the sensuous backdrop to the story.

And that’s only part of the director’s magic. The real art is in his ability to reveal the inner lives of two very complex and driven personalities. By letting the camera rest on Miranda Otto’s pale finely-nuanced features through a myriad of emotions, we see the joys and sorrows of the poet unfold before us. She’s not a great beauty but the director’s camera makes her so, and her often low-key, distanced performance is perfectly pitched.

At one point, early in the film, she tells the poet Robert Lowell that “she’s the loneliest person who ever lived.” On the face of such admissions, we can be overjoyed that she is off at her Vassar friend Mary’s invitation to the exotic climes of Rio de Janeiro. During a brief interlude on a Norwegian freighter, she regrets that she has missed the crossing of the Equator. We can only imagine that to Bishop such a moment would signal a sea change in her very psyche, even if she didn’t yet know how it would play out.

From their first meeting we sense an almost animal tension between the two women. As played by Glória Pires, Lota is a Latina lioness. With her gleaming black hair and big framed eyeglasses glued on her foreign guest, she strides across the wide expanses of her country estate as if she owned the whole of Brazil. Nevertheless, there’s an earthy humor to her imperiousness, as when she verbally accosts her workers with lines like, “You look lost like a fart in jodhpurs.”

Attracted as Lota may be to the reticent northerner and unaware that Bishop is concealing her own dependency to alcohol, she chides her in front of her other luncheon guests. Why doesn’t the woman know that you can’t make a proper toast with water? Lota accuses her of being “imperious and aloof,” and when Bishop suffers a violent allergic reaction to the fruit of the cashew tree and must submit to the woman’s care, Lota’s response? “My trick, mia flora.” Whether it was accidental or not, Bishop falls under her spell, and for the next 15 years she will make Brazil her primary residence. In a letter to poet Marianne Moore, published by the Library of America in its 2008 volume of her works, Bishop confesses that “I have been so happy that it takes a great deal of getting used to. My troubles, or trouble, seem to have disappeared completely since leaving New York.”

And what about Bishop’s longtime friend Mary, you ask? She will remain on the peripheries of Lota’s life, caring for the baby that Lota adopts for her. It is Mary who reveals a foreshadowing of potential trouble ahead when she tells Lota that Bishop is a dangerous woman — one young man from their early past killed himself over the writer. Tracy Middendorf manages to endow her part with a girlish charm that turns brittle when she finds a love she had taken for granted slipping quickly from her grasp.

Treat Williams plays the role of Cal, Bishop’s name for one of her closest friends and compatriots, the poet Lowell. They rendezvous at the miniature boat lake in Central Park at the beginning and end of the film. It’s a device that appears almost staged, framing the real story to be told. Williams seems a strange casting choice. It’s not so much his age or the fact that he doesn’t remotely suggest Lowell’s tall, rangy angularity — from the down-to-earth leading man roles of his youth, he’s matured comfortably into an attractive, professorial middle-aged suitor here, platonic as that may be in this case — but he lacks the passionate intensity we associate with Lowell. He and Bishop both shared a spiritual angst, an alcoholic dependency and propensity for the periodic nervous breakdown that informed their poetic genius. They were soul mates through the highs and lows of their troubled lives.

Nevertheless, just the presence of Lowell in the script helps to flesh out Bishop’s other life, as much a spiritual separation from Lota’s world as the physical separation between continents.

Bishop is recognized today as one of the 20th century’s greatest poets. James Merrill has described her poems as “more wryly radiant, more touching, more unaffectedly intelligent than any written in our lifetime.” One of Bishop’s most haunting poems, One Art, is repeated in part by the actress in one of the film’s narrative sequences: “The art of losing isn’t hard to master/so many things seem filled with the intent/to be lost that their loss is no disaster.”

It’s unfortunate that so little room exists in a film to share the poetry itself. But if, as Bishop has said, “poetry is a way of thinking with one’s feelings,” then Barreto has found a way to elucidate her work through his medium. The creator of 18 features, including the hit Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, and Oscar-nominated Four Days in September, has a special gift.

It’s time that great and pivotal relationships in our shared history transcend race and gender. Reaching for the Moon is not only a truly beautiful film in story and visual scope. It’s also an important one. We can only hope that it will receive the distribution it deserves.

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

“Reaching for the Moon” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 18.

Featured image: Miranda Otto as Elizabeth Bishop in the movie “Reaching for the Moon.” Photo Credit: Lisa Graham/2012 © L.C. Barreto.

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