Whether you’ve never heard of Elizabeth Bishop or are vaguely aware of her poetry or wrote your doctoral thesis on her NYU years, you will enjoy this film. “Reaching for the Moon” is an intimate portrait of a years-long love affair between the Vassar-educated Bishop and well-connected Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares, which includes the stunning backdrops of New York’s Central Park and Pétropolis, “The Imperial City” of Brazil.
Playing Bishop, Miranda Otto exudes a New England Yankee quality a la Katharine Hepburn or Rosalind Russell, but with a distinct reserve that made me not list Bette Davis as an example and which tapers off as the film progresses. After feeling a nervous breakdown coming on, Bishop decides to visit old school chum Mary (Tracy Middendorf) down in Brazil, for a trip no longer than two weeks. Soon, Bishop decides to stay longer and longer, turning the brief vacation into a 15-year sojourn. What made her stay? Was it falling in love with the lush surroundings in the mountains of Brazil? No, although that will impact the quality of her work later on, including winning the Pulitzer Prize. She stays because of Mary’s outspoken and charismatic girlfriend Lota (Gloria Pires), which puts the trio into a bit of a situation. Not to spoil anything, but suffice it to write that the three women come to an agreement of sorts and it takes Bishop more than a decade to return to Manhattan. For Bishop fans, it will be a treat to hear her poetry scattered throughout the film, especially as it’s not done in a cheesy or forced manner.
One criticism, with all that was happening around the globe and particularly in Brazil, it seemed that the film’s characters were distant from real world events, although meeting with political honchos socially. A military coup overthrows the government and little is shown beyond Bishop reprimanding Lota over shrugging it off as usual in South American politics (who can blame her?) and Bishop awkwardly mentioning her opinion about such apathy again in a toast at a public dinner. I may have seen “Evita” one too many times (yes, I know this is about Brazil, not Argentina), but I would have liked to have seen more action and turmoil. Although on reflection, it would make sense that the pair would be above the fray, considering their place in society not only being in the upper echelons, but in the outskirts socially due to their sexuality.
With that being said, this was one of the more intimate love stories I have seen. Others that spring to mind include “Brokeback Mountain” and “Keep the Lights On” from last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which coincidentally are also about homosexual relationships though that is not intentional in the comparison. “Reaching for the Moon” focuses on the tumultuous love story of two strong people, rather than an underlying socio-political statement. One scene in particular comes to mind where Bishop and Lota are lying in bed together. The shot reveals their two torsos and hips entwined next to each other, not in a sexual or vulgar manner, but revealing an incredibly high level of emotional intimacy within just one physical image.
Also featuring a nice turn by Treat Williams as the dashingly caddish Robert Lowell, “Reaching for the Moon” is a moving portrait of one couple’s deep affection, from finding love in an unexpected place to the seemingly inevitable misunderstandings to ultimately tragic loss. [B+]