“Reaching for the Moon”: Love dares speak its name

I really liked this movie, mainly because of its unusual characters based on actual historical figures.

Directed by Brazilian Bruno Barreto, Reaching for the Moon is a biopic about Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Elizabeth Bishop (Aussie actress Miranda Otto, who played Eowyn in the Lord of the Rings series).

Treat Williams portrays another Pulitzer-winning giant of the poetry world, Robert Lowell, although he only has a cameo role. That’s because this film focuses on the long-lasting affair between Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares (Brazilian actress Gloria Pires, who appeared in another biopic, 2009’s look at Brazil’s lefty president, Lula, The Son of Brazil). As breakthroughs in same-sex marriage continue to make headlines, this tale of a lesbian romance that began back in 1951 is especially timely.

The script by Matthew Chapman, Julie Sayres, and Carolino Kotscho, inspired by Carmen Oliveira’s novel Rare and Commonplace Flowers, has several hallmarks of good writing: Lots of twists and turns the viewer doesn’t see coming. Succeeding sequences serve to explain previous scenes. The film opens in New York’s Central Park, but soon Bishop is on the road to Rio de Janeiro, where events conspire to keep her there for decades once she encounters Lota.

No frail lotus blossom, Lota is arguably the biopic’s most interesting, original character. Throughout this two-hour feature, this viewer’s opinion of her continued to evolve as her character developed. On the one hand, Lota is an out-of-the-closet lesbian in the Catholic, Portuguese-influenced, patriarchal Brazil of the 1950s. On the other, she is a charter member of the ruling class, so despite her sexual preference she is used to getting her way. After all, if wealth is our international language, then money talks, no matter your sexual orientation.

It’s interesting that Lota’s lesbianism is not made much of in Brazil, nor is her affair with the far more repressed, secretive Bishop. This seems true both when they are at Lota’s modernist refuge in the Amazon jungle and when staying at her posh penthouse in Rio. The degree of acceptance of the screen couple’s Sapphic relationship from the 1950s through the 1960s is indeed eye-opening, especially considering how they most likely would have been treated in the staid U.S.A.

Mauro Pinheiro Jr. provides lush, sumptuous cinematography of the tropics, Copacabana Beach, Sugarloaf, etc.

It’s interesting to note that currently another great American writer-Glenn Greenwald, that fierce champion of civil liberties who brought Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA über-snooping to the world’s attention-is an expat who has left America to live in Brazil with his male Brazilian lover. Perhaps Brazil is ahead of the supposedly “advanced” United States?

I can’t tell how historically accurate this film is, but according to the movie, Bishop chafes under the rule of the military junta that overthrows the democratically elected Brazilian government in 1964. Coming from the land-owning élite, Lota’s position is different, and that difference affects the way political events shape the lovers’ lives.

Director Barreto helmed 1997’s fact-based Four Days in September, which starred Alan Arkin as a U.S. diplomat kidnapped by the MR-8 “terrorist” group, which supported armed resistance to Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship (which, by the way, tortured Brazil’s current President, Dilma Rousseff, a former Marxist guerrilla, who is currently fighting against the NSA surveillance of her which Snowden revealed). Barreto also directed the popular 1976 erotic ghost comedy Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. At a screening of Reaching for the Moon in Los Angeles, he put his finger on Moon‘s message in his pithy introductory remarks, saying: “This is a love story.”

Indeed, straight, gay, trans, or whatever, love is what inspires the poet in all of us, and makes the world and moon go round. Reaching for the Moon is an absorbing, insightful psychological drama with political overtones which won an OutFest Audience Award and is one of the year’s best movies about the love that now does dare speak its name.

The new book co-authored by L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell, “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book,” published by Honolulu’s Mutual Publishing, has just been released (see: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/).

Photo: Dropbox


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic and co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist.