Sometimes it’s the quietest of movies that leave a lasting impression, and that’s the case with “The Heiresses,” Marcelo Martinessi’s autumnal study of a long-sheltered Paraguayan woman who takes tentative steps to reconnect with the world after the companion who had overseen her affairs for years is sent to prison. It’s a restrained, stately movie with a deep emotional core.
It also showcases a remarkable performance from Ana Brun as Chela, a shy, reserved woman of perhaps sixty who’s lived in the same Asunción house since she was the pampered child of a well-to-do family. She’s shared the house for years with her lover Chiquita (Margarita Irún), who’s assumed responsibility for most of the practical matters, including—now—the sale of many of Chela’s prized family belongings.
Money is tight, but despite that Chela tries to keep up appearances even as wealthy women drop in to see if there’s anything to buy. She watches from behind a nearly-closed door as Chiquita hosts them, along with their new maid Pati (Nilda Gonzalez). And unwilling to give up her pride, she resists taking any help from their friends.
Unfortunately, Chiquita has gotten into legal difficulty over an unpaid debt, and has been found guilty of fraud and sentenced to a prison term. Chela accompanies her to the jail and drives herself home haltingly in her father’s old Mercedes, which she hasn’t taken out in years (she no longer even has a driver’s license). She’ll also take the car out periodically to visit Chiquita in prison.
It’s on one of those outings that she’s noticed by an elderly neighbor, snooty Pituca (Maria Martins, who manages to make every line of her dialogue sound as though it were dipped in acid), who asks if she might give her a ride to her regular card game. Chela reluctantly agrees, and Pituca presses some money on her for the ride. She also becomes a regular customer, along with other women from the card game.
As she finds herself going out more often, Chela’s life changes. She’s still more timorous than not, but her confidence grows bit by bit. She also meets a younger woman at Pituca’s gatherings—Angy (Ana Ivanova), a brassy, aggressive sort who catches Chela’s eye. Angy’s not gay, but her free-spirited ways entrance Chela. Meanwhile, the ease with which Chiquita has accommodated herself to prison life surprises and distresses her.
Brun delicately traces the steps in Chela’s journey of self-discovery, and Martinessi’s unhurried pacing gives the nuances in her performance ample time to register. The other women in her orbit are also well played, with Irún’s steeliness and Ivanova’s straightforward sensuality complementing her apparent placidity. And at opposite ends of the spectrum, Martins offers a portrait of upper-crust bile and Gonzalez one of almost preternatural kindness and calm.
Subtlety is also the hallmark of Carlo Spatuzza’s production design, with its fastidious dressing of the interior of Chela’s home, and Luis Armando Artega’s cinematography, particularly in its exquisite use of light and shadow in the interiors. Fernando Epstein’s editing is of a piece with Martinessi’s unrushed style.
Tales of female liberation often come on too strong. This one makes a few missteps—like the symbolism attached to a serving tray—but it maintains its refined sensibility even to the end, ending with a note of triumph so muted that it’s almost inaudible, neither bang nor whimper but satisfyingly in between.