Marcelo Martinessi, “The Heiresses / Las Herederas” (2018)
A slow-burning, low-key character study that, among other things, examines loss and self-transformation and interrogates social hierarchy and the relations within it, “The Heiresses” is a rare creature: its main characters are a middle-aged lesbian couple who have lived together for 30 years in one woman’s old family home, sheltered by wealth and privilege, in Asuncion, in Paraguay. Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun) are busy selling off old heirlooms belonging to both their families to raise money to pay off Chiquita’s debts and to survive. However the money the two raise isn’t enough to stop Chiquita from going to jail for fraud, which she cheerfully accepts. Initially the shy Chela is hugely embarrassed by their situation and withdraws into their prison-like house. Gradually though she is drawn out of that shell, and her own psychological shell, by neighbour Pituca, a rich elderly woman who needs Chela to drive her to weekly bridge games with her girlfriends – even though Chela hasn’t driven the ageing Bentley for yonks. Pituca and her pals start using Chela as their own private Uber taxi driver and before long, Chela is also driving for a younger woman, Angy (Ana Ivanova), and her mother who needs to go to Itaugua each week for medical appointments. Through her driving and through Angy, to whom she becomes attracted due to the younger woman’s zest for life and sensuality, Chela rediscovers an independence and a hope for freedom she long ago had given up.
Brun’s performance as Chela is the film’s major asset: though she does not speak much and is an essentially passive character, the changes and increased confidence she experiences as a chauffeur become obvious from one day to the next. The film is a textbook example of the maxim “Show, don’t tell”: Chela gradually improves her appearance and adopts a more sprightly posture and a happier face. Her transformation occasionally hits some obstacles and challenges – the most challenging being when Chiquita returns home and decides to sell off the Bentley – but in her own unassuming way Chela eventually finds a solution and manages to thwart those who would stand in the way. Where Chela does not speak, her eyes, the expression on her face, her posture and her body language do all the talking. Incredibly, “The Heiresses” marks Brun’s debut as a film actor, all her previous work having been done on stage. The rest of the cast puts up a strong showing, in particular Ivanova as the flirtatious, sensual potential lover Angy and Maria Martins as the talkative Pituca.
The film portrays Paraguayan society as one where wealth, class and race coincide quite strongly: white Europeans make up the wealthy class while people of mixed ancestry make up the poor. Chela and Chiquita hire a new maid who speaks little Spanish and who is clearly beneath them socially yet becomes something of a mother figure to Chela when Chela is at her most despondent. Part of Chela’s transformation from a lonely isolated figure to a fully aware human being involves having to communicate with and ask for help from someone from a different class who does not look European. The transformation occurs in parallel with the gradual loss of furniture and other family possessions; Chela does not seem too bothered about giving up furniture and heirlooms that must surely hold many memories and much family history.
Where Chela goes next after Chiquita’s return, the film does not say but her absence at the end of the film speaks more powerfully than an entire cast of thousands could say and shout. It is this kind of direction and filming, using a scene, a prop or the absence of something to express its opposite, that mark Martinessi a director to watch in the future. Chela’s transformation may be taken as a symbol of Paraguay’s gradual transformation from a political and cultural backwater in the middle of South America, with the divided and hierarchical society one might expect to find, to a modern nation where old socioeconomic categories have broken down to allow all citizens to fulfill their potential as human beings.