By B. Michael Rubin
Rare Flowers (Flores Raras) is the rare movie that engages its audience while addressing some difficult issues: alcoholism, fame, and the fragile emotions of women in love. The film is set in the beautiful mountains around Petropolis. It was directed by one of Brazil’s best-known directors, Bruno Barreto and stars Glória Pires, a favorite among today’s Brazilian actresses.
Mr. Barreto’s career stretches back decades to Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, and he is one of the few Brazilian directors to have made the leap to Hollywood. Today, he continues to direct films in both Hollywood and Brazil, and in Rare Flowers he combines his bi-cultural talents by shooting a movie on location in Brazil with a Brazilian star that is entirely in English.
Rare Flowers is the true story of the relationship between two women, the Brazilian architect Lotade Macedo Soares (Glória Pires) and an American poet, Elizabeth Bishop (Miranda Otto). Bishop came to Brazil on vacation in 1951 and instead stayed for 15 years, living with Lota in a beautiful home Lota designed in Petropolis. As Bishop didn’t speak Portuguese, the movie’s dialogue is in English, with Pires demonstrating her excellent English language skills.
Mr. Barreto was first made aware of this fascinating story ten years ago when Barreto’s mother, who is a film producer, gave her son a copy of the book, Flores Raras, and told him it would make a great movie. At the time, Barreto was busy with other projects and turned it down. Ten years later, Barreto’s wife, unaware of her mother-in-law’s interest in the story, also approached Barreto with the same story. Barreto took this as a sign and agreed to direct the project, with his mother and sister as producers.
While Elizabeth Bishop was one of America’s best known poets, this is the first major film made about her life in Brazil. She arrived in Petropolis at a time when she’d lost faith in her abilities as a poet. Her first meeting with Lota couldn’t have been worse, as Lota believed the shy Bishop strange, and Bishop saw Lota as overly confident and outspoken. Nevertheless, Lota, who was a wealthy architect, was in love with Bishop’s poetry and soon fell in love with the poet.
What makes this film extraordinary is it openly exposes the difficult issues in the lives of these two complicated women, following the many years of their relationship. While Bishop’s time in Brazil proved to rekindle her creative spark, culminating in Bishop winning the Pulitzer Prize for a book of poems she wrote while living in Lota’s home, their relationship was tempestuous. Bishop often felt overwhelmed by Lota’s domineering personality as Lota remained in complete control of their daily lives.
Bishop’s adjustment to life in Brazil wasn’t easy, as she came from a shy, hardworking background, typical of the New England region of the US. She was not prepared to live in a country like Brazil, expert in the art of happiness and joyous exuberance.
Lota also had difficulty adjusting to Bishop’s reserved ways. Lota is typically Brazilian in her open expressions of emotion, declaring she is in love with Bishop immediately. Meanwhile, Bishop’s upbringing keeps her from ever declaring her love openly to Lota.
Despite the beauty and power of Bishop’s poetry, her personality is fragile, and she suffers from childhood demons. Her father died when she was only 8 months old, and when she was 5, her mother was taken off to a mental institution.
Bishop confesses to Lota one night: “If I don’t have what I want, I’m lonely and sad. If I do have what I want, I’m sure I’m going to lose it, and the waiting is unbearable.” Bishop is afraid to open the telegram announcing she has won the Pulitzer Prize. Lota tears open the envelope for her.
Besides highlighting their cultural differences, another difficult issue the film openly addresses is Lota’s concern for Bishop’s excessive drinking. Bishop’s drinking becomes a problem for everyone, but when she suggests a vacation to escape the stress of their lives, Lota laughs. She can’t believe Bishop wants to run away exactly at the time when Lota is most needed to pursue her architecture career and fight the restrictions of the military government in the early 1960s in Brazil. Lota’s self-confidence and ability to see beyond any obstacle in front of her is a remarkable inspiration to Bishop, who suffers from a devastating lack of confidence.
Mr. Barreto’s willingness to expose Lota’s self-absorbed dynamism is another strength of this film – the film realistically paints the lives of these powerful and complex women. For instance, Lota insists on adopting a baby that will be raised by Lota’s previous girlfriend, Mary, who lives in Lota’s house along with Lota and Bishop. We watch the adoption of the baby from a local woman who is poor and has many children, an adoption arranged by Lota’s maid. Lota simply takes the infant from the mother’s arms, hands her cash, and walks away with no remorse, explaining to the horrified Bishop that they are doing the mother “a great favor”.
Watching the three gay women living in the hills of Petropolis is one of the special gifts of this movie. Barreto exposes the details of their time together and how they must hide their lesbian lifestyle even from their cultured friends in Rio, where Lota has an apartment on Copacabana. Also, we witness the emotional tension between Mary and Bishop who are both in love with Lota.
The movie is unafraid to illustrate the challenges that Lota faces as an architect with political connections, trying to create a park in Rio just at the time when the military government comes to power. The stress of Lota’s disappointment in being unable to design the park exactly as she wishes drives Lota to a nervous breakdown. Bishop is in New York at this time, teaching for a semester at NYU, but when Bishop comes to see Lota in the hospital, she is blocked by Mary. Meanwhile, Lota writes dozens of letters to Bishop in New York, but Mary secretly throws the letters away.
With the charismatic character of Lota and the brilliant poetry of Elizabeth Bishop at its center, Bruno Barreto’s Rare Flowers offers a unique glimpse into the lives of privileged and powerful women in 1950s Brazil. Glória Pires is fantastic in this remarkable segment in the history of the rise of Brazil’s potent women.
Rare Flowers (Flores Raras) Director: Bruno Barreto Cast: Glória Pires, Miranda Otto Now playing in Novo Batel Mall in Curitiba
[For more information about Elizabeth Bishop, see the CIE story: “Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil.”]
Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.