Sydney Film Festival Review: The Heiresses (Paraguay, 2018) is a low-key, yet compelling character study

If one were to describe this film briefly, The Heiresses could be seen a cross between Wong Kar-wai‘s Happy Together and Albert and David MayslesGrey Gardens. As Kar-wai says about the title of his film, being happy together is being happy with oneself, and it is within that context is where the journey in The Heiresses comes from.

The story follows the lives of Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun), whom have both descended from wealthy families in Asuncion, Paraguay. The two have been together for 30 years but recently their finances has worsened and they begin selling off their inherited possessions. But when their debts lead to Chiquita being imprisoned on fraud charges, Chela is forced to live a new phase of her life that would force her out of her shell.

Driving for the first time in years, she begins to provide a local taxi service to a group of elderly wealthy ladies, despite her pride. As Chela settles into her new life, she encounters the much younger Angy, forging a new and exciting connection. Chela finally begins to contemplate on her past and starts to ponder major decisions for her future.

Now that may seem like a depressing story to trudge through, but the characters are well-realized, the performances are compellingly naturalistic and the storytelling is assured and even has a welcome dash of humour, thanks to the sharp, acerbic performance by Maria Martins.

The social context of social status and privileges in Paraguay’s elitist zeitgeist (which is still quite prevalent today) adds a certain punch to the characterizations. In the case of Chela, she is shy of the outside world (and could be suffering from chronic depression) and what it has to offer and yet within the metaphorical shell she has nestled in, she has a sense of pride with what she has before and even after her possessions are taken away.

The storytelling never ventures through predictability nor gets buried in its various subplots and the characters’ growth veers the same way. There are enjoyable moments of intimacy and tenderness like the interactions between Chela and Angy (as well as the housemaid, Pita) that signal the character progression of the former but said attention should also be paid towards the shot selections, which deviate from POV shots and handheld towards more open shots (courtesy of cinematographer Luis Armando Artega), as well as the costume design and make-up, which conveys the gradual vivacity of Chela.

But none of those things would be effective if it weren’t for the performances. The majority of the cast are all newcomers or those with relatively little acting experience. Brun is understated and yet magnetic in the way she conveys foreign sensations using her expressive face like fear, hurt and hopefulness with aplomb.

Irun is good as Chiquita, the much more grounded of the pair (who can handle the harshness of life more capably) and as mentioned earlier, Martins is a hoot as Pituca, an older neighbour who selfishly berates Chela to drive her to her ladies’ card games. But the other standout of the film is Ana Ivanova as Angy. Convincingly confident, fierce and comfortably sensual, she shares an enjoyable and lovely rapport with Brun.

While the film may be a bit too understated for its own good (which can test the audience’s patience and the metaphors may be a bit blatant (one scene involves a spill of a intricately set platter), the film scores mightily with a satisfying ending that achieves what it exactly sets out to do, with a sense of ambiguity as well as a sense of catharsis.

Overall, The Heiresses is a quiet, understated and yet compelling piece of work that is brimming with intimacy, naturalistic performances, assured storytelling and the tactful use of thematically rich subtext. Recommended.

Review Score: FOUR FRAUD CHARGES (OUT OF FIVE)

The Heiresses is screening as part of Sydney Film Festival on the 16th and 17th of June. Head HERE for tickets and more details.