Bishop (Miranda Otto) is embracing her dozing lover Lota (Glória Pires) in bed. Bishop confesses that she's written her a poem and starts to say it aloud. When it ends you're expecting Lota to rouse, in awe of the composition, but instead you hear her snoring. I only wish I was able to drift off into blissful sleep. Reaching for the Moon is the shamefully unpoetic and aesthetically wasteful chronicle of the tragic love affair between Pulitzer Prize winning American poet Elizabeth Bishop (Otto) and famed Brazilian architect Lota de Macedo Soares (Pires).
Let's put it right out on front street, I sent several text messages during the screening of Reaching for the Moon. On a scale of 'checking the time on your phone' to 'Richard Wilkins' they were relatively unobtrusive, but they were a necessary evil. My fiancé captured one of them (pictured below) in this very accurate tweet.
"Get Heat ready" - msg from @BlakeisBatman during a screening is a sure fire way to tell you just how bad it is!
— Sam Todd-Prior (@spicyporkbun) July 3, 2014
Why Heat you ask? For the majority of you that don't listen to Graffiti with Punctuation's POD SAVE OUR SCREEN podcast, I wholeheartedly believe that all cinephiles must have an 'in case of emergency break glass' film to renew your faith in cinema. Michael Mann's crime opus Heat is that film for me. In the midst of this dour melodrama, that I was intent on sitting through (if nothing but for the catharsis of this review), it became overwhelmingly clear that I was witnessing director Bruno Barreto and writers Matthew Chapman and Julie Sayres reaching for a collection of Elizabeth Bishop's poetry and fumbling it into an un-flushed toilet.
For glimpses you see the promise. Bishop and Lota are queer icons. Bishop's titanic literary achievements are all the more impressive taking into consideration that at a young age she witnessed her mother being hauled away to a mental institution. Pires is tough, beautiful, and despite her diminutive stature, carries a large and influential presence. Barreto is blessed with the incredible spaces that the real life Soares designed to provide the setting for the film. For one seamless beautiful moment at the height of Bishop's alcoholism Mary (Tracey Middendorf) is supporting her from one side, while Lota is on the other. The framing, the tension between these women living out Lota's strange fantasy life, the thankless venom in Bishop's words all make for a powerfully transcendent moment.
Unfortunately Chapman and Sayres reduce these real, interesting people and the complexity of their relationship into exchanges that resemble making friends in preschool. Lota and Bishop fall in love in approximately three minutes of screen time after discovering a) that she's an alcoholic and b) after Otto's Bishop must stuff something into her mouth to quell her almost gyrating desire as Mary and Lota are playing a game of 'grab-ass' when she has an allergic reaction that takes her halfway between the Red Skull and Elephant man. The reductive nature of this film doesn't stop there; Bishop's craziness must mean that she loves cats, cue a stray cat that conveniently wanders into their home. At this point all that was required was someone on a megaphone screeching 'METAPHOR!' The audacity of three gay women living together in 1957 is overshadowed by an insistence of dinner parties where they spout pieces of Bishop's poetry because... reasons. Barreto's best construction of female sensuality is Lota having her hair washed by firstly Mary then Bishop; the slow motion visuals would make a shampoo commercial swoon.
Oscar Wilde famously said; “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Reaching for the Moon is so dense that it looks to the stars and sees a street lamp.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by:Bruno Barreto
Written by: Matthew Chapman, Julie Sayres
Starring: Glória Pires, Miranda Otto, Tracey Middendorf