Two older women live in a beautiful mansion in Paraguay–but they are facing financial ruin. When one of them goes to prison to serve a short sentence for fraud, the other begins to explore possibilities of which she’d been previously unaware.
The Heiresses is a film from Paraguay, the first movie I’ve seen from that country. Paraguay has a cinematic history, but it’s been small and plagued by lack of finances, especially during the long years of dictatorship. Since that regime ended in the 1990s, there has been a bit of a revival.
The title, The Heiresses, is ironic. Two older women, Chela and Chiquita, live in a beautiful old mansion in the city of Asunción. We’re not sure at first of their relationship, but it becomes fairly certain eventually that they’re lovers. I say “fairly” because nothing is ever explicitly said about it. Paraguay still exists within an antiquated tradition of silence, in which two older women living together are thought of as maiden spinsters, anything more intimate going unacknowledged.
Evidently both women have inherited their property and possessions, with Chela, played by prominent stage actress Ana Brun, clearly the wealthier of the two. As the film opens, however, they’re in the process of selling off a large number of their valuables: paintings, furniture, silverware, and other family heirlooms. There has been some sort of financial disaster, and the outgoing Chiquita, played by Marguerita Irun, appears to be the cause. In fact, she has been charged with fraud, apparently for failing to pay debts to a bank, and is facing a short prison sentence.
Chiquita does indeed go to prison, and typically for her, makes the best of it, forging friendships and alliances with other inmates. Left alone with only a servant for company, Chela undergoes some changes that might seem inexplicable at first. A shy, introspective painter, who seems particularly melancholy about losing so many of her valuables, she’s asked by a neighbor to drive her to a regular card game that the neighbor has with other older ladies. At first, Chela refuses to get paid for this, but eventually settles into being a regular paid driver, even though she secretly has no license. She starts to like getting out of the house in this way, even though being a taxi driver is considered a demeaning occupation for a lady. Then she strikes up a friendship with the adult daughter of one of the card players, Angi (played by Ana Ivanova), whose sexy, self-confident demeanor and complicated multi-boyfriend history makes her a figure of some fascination, and then perhaps more than that.
This is the first feature by the 45-year-old writer and director Marcelo Martinessi. The style, themes and treatment in this movie seem like those of a wise seasoned artist. We’re invited into this small intriguing world through subtle and discreet revelation, like a character-grounded novella or short story. The central figure is Chela, and Ana Brun’s performance is profoundly versatile. Chela’s initial shock and depression seems like a permanent state, but little by little we observe her lighting up, becoming more hopeful, more engaged in life. Her expressive eyes convey a multitude of conflicting emotions, from fear to judgment to vulnerability. Martinessi maintains an undercurrent of sadness throughout. The future is an uncertain and possibly deceptive thing—The Heiresses finely balances the precarious inward struggle of someone who doesn’t know whether or not to trust in the hope of better things.