They’ve been together forever.
You can tell from the lifetime of art, furniture, glass, silverware and china that fills their roomy but gloomy old house in the bourgeois corner of town.
It’s in their conversation, the gentle bickering with the sharp edge. Each knows how to cut the other.
And you see it in the way they look after each other, knowing when to take the wheel when the other’s had too much to drink, prodding one another to get out more, attend a birthday party.
But can “The Heiresses,” Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita “Chiqui” (Margarita Irun) withstand the tests of bankruptcy, separation, their quickly shrinking world together, the temptations of the world beyond their insular, homey bubble?
Paraguay’s selection to compete for Best Foreign Language Film at the most recent Academy Awards is a Dickensian or at least Austenesque portrait of atrophy and decline.
That’s not limited to the women themselves, who are not getting any younger, but still have their health (Latin American smoking habits be damned). It’s their lives together, their house, their “place” in this world of writer-director Marcelo Martinessi’s creation, all in decline.
Because as we meet them, a lady is humming through their dining room, counting silverware, sizing up the “estate.”
Nobody’s dying. But things are being sold off, “my father’s paintings,” furniture, glassware. Bit by bit.
That doesn’t sit well with Chela, who resents the fact that more of her things are going than Chiqui’s. Not so, says the accused, in Spanish with English subtitles.
“LIAR,” Chela spits, storming out, probably with good reason. Chiqui is the driving force of this relationship, and her finances are the big problem.
Carmela (Alicia Guerra) is trying to help, arranging sales and the like. But at Carmela’s birthday party, Chela realizes she’s probably told their whole circle of acquaintances about their plight. Perhaps she’s being paranoid, but Chela is sensitive to the shame of it all.
Because Chiqui is about to leave her. Something about her finances have her headed to jail. Debtor’s prison? Credit fraud or some such?
With Chiqui in jail and visits limited to Wednesdays, the morose and submissive Chela has to find something to do in between visits and fresh sales of their joint property.
The unlit, troublingly quiet house (Did they sell the TV? Are power bills an issue?) is sure to make her crack, until she stumbles into a new pass time.
An older neighbor needs a lift in Chela’s father’s ancient Mercedes, and insists on paying for it. Next thing we know, Chela is an elder/Uber, serving her fellow little old ladies in their well-heeled corner of Asunción.
That’s where she meets the younger woman with no car (Ana Ivanova) who uses her service, passes the word on that service, drags her out to group lunches and regales her with intimate stories of her libidinous past.
Brun suggests a woman whose life has been so privileged, refined and conflict-free that she’s loathe to raise the volume, now. It’s a performance perfectly in pitch with the milieu.
The gay subtext here isn’t particularly sexual. What “The Heiresses” is caught up in the dynamic of the relationships, the possibility of blossoming and growth after decades of stagnation, the furtive thought of an affair.
None of which is really out in the open. As I say, “subtext.”
If there’s a serious flaw to Martinessi’s late-life love story it is the muted tones, the silences, the quiet flatness of conversations. There’s a little drama here, but you have to be looking for it.
The production design matches the somnambulant tone — subdued blues, underlit rooms, natural lighting in the car as Chela drives chatty neighbors and acquaintances hither and yon.
He keeps his camera on the ladies, letting us see the settings, from the emptying-out house to the just-as-quiet cafes and bars and parties. Even the karaoke is tastfully low in volume. And we never see the car from the outside, “establishing” shots always settle on faces and the rooms they’re about to enter, the drive they’re about to take.
Martinessi has made a modestly engrossing, too-too-tasteful film about older “ladies who lunch” and cope with their own form of quiet desperation. If only it had more spark, conflict, color and heat.
MPAA Rating: unrated, adult subject matter
Cast: Ana Brun, Margarita Irun, Ana Ivanova
Credits: Written and directed by Marcelo Martinessi. An 1844 Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:38