Reeling Advice: Reaching for the Moon

Thu. November 14, 2013 12:00 AM
by Gregg Shapiro

Movies about poets can be a risky proposition. There's the good, as in the case of Stevie starring Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith. The fair, such as Howl, starring James Franco as Allen Ginsberg. Then there's the downright dismal, which is the story with Gwynneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath in Sylvia. Reaching for the Moon (Imagen), starring Miranda Otto as lesbian poet Elizabeth Bishop is, gratefully, in the good category.

Based on a true story, Reaching for the Moon, begins in 1951 in New York, with Bishop (Otto) reading an early version of her poem "One Art" to poet and confidant Robert Lowell (Treat Williams) in Central Park. Declaring herself the "loneliest person who ever lived," Bishop decides to take a trip and travel to Brazil to visit Vassar classmate Mary (Tracy Middendorf). "A long way from Vassar," Mary lives in Brazil with her lesbian lover Lota (Glória Pires), a renowned architect. Mary doesn't speak to her parents back in the States because she lives with a woman.

What starts out as an uncomfortable three day visit, mainly due to Elizabeth's alcoholism and social awkwardness (she's described as "imperious, aloof") and Lota's abruptness (she's the one doing the describing), becomes a prolonged stay when the allergic Bishop comes into contact with nuts. Pretty soon Lota starts coming on to Elizabeth which in turn makes Mary so jealous she departs for Rio. Elizabeth feels bad but that doesn't stop her from having sex with Lota.

In an unusual turn of events, Mary returns and the three women set up house together, although it is clearly Elizabeth in whom Lota is interested. Lota constructs a stunning studio for Elizabeth and the poet is grateful and prolific. But there are complications including Lota's plan to adopt a baby for Mary. Nevertheless, while in Brazil, where she says she's never felt more at home in her life, Elizabeth completes the manuscript for North & South: A Cold Spring, a book for which she receives the Pulitzer Prize.

Brazilian director Bruno Barretto also interweaves the political upheaval of the time into the story which enriches and grounds the film. Like the country, Elizabeth and Lota's relationship takes a sudden turn for the worse. When Elizabeth accepts an offer to teach at NYU, Lota goes into a tailspin, compounded by the worsening political situation and the military coup in Brazil. Hospitalized following a breakdown, Lota writes letters to Elizabeth and even sends her a sizable lock of her hair. But Mary, still in love with Lota, never mails the letters or package.

When Elizabeth and Lota are finally reunited in New York, where Elizabeth is now involved with a woman named Margaret, the story reaches a tragic conclusion. For all the drama, Reaching for the Moon is not overwrought, but rather respectful of its subject matter. The performances, particularly those from Otto and Pires, are riveting. Reaching for the Moon isn't just one of the best movies at Reeling, it's one of the best movies of the year. ( Reeling 31: The Chicago LGBT International Film Festival screens Reaching For The Moon at The Logan Theatre at 6:45 p.m. on Nov. 14.)

Reeling 31 concludes with three closing night selections - a gay, lesbian and transgender film - Ludwig II, Reaching for the Moon and Ian Harvie Superhero starring Ian Harvie, the world's first FTM transgender standup comic (who will attend the screening).

A closing-night reception will be held at the Stan Mansion, 2408 N. Kedzie Ave.

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