It is commonplace that films offer a window onto the world. If you did not know much about Paraguay, for example, you can learn a lot, in an organic kind of way, from Marcelo Martinessi’s subtle and haunting film The Heiresses. We spoke to Martinessi during this year’s Sydney Film Festival, just a day or so before his feature was chosen, from among twelve others, to receive the prestigious competition film prize.
Paraguay is a land-locked country – an ‘island surrounded by land’ as the director says, and like many South American nations, it has a colourful history of military governments and economic boom and bust. Martinessi lives part of the time in London (where he had his film school training) and partly in Paraguay. His own mixed parentage, and his dual-domicile life, gave him a powerful insider/outsider perspective for his first feature.
“My dad’s family came from Italy, my mother’s family from England. I am third generation migrant. But I grew up in Paraguay and my parents are actually very Paraguayan in their own way. I am from a fairly privileged social background, so I have always felt when you see films about South America they are usually about Indians, about campesinos [farmers], or about poverty. And then, I always felt, there is something missing – there are no stories about this ruling class. And they have stories too and they are also quite central to understanding the country. So, when I sat down to write my first film I thought I cannot write about people who are struggling for food or whatever, but I can write about people’s struggles over other issues.”
The Heiresses focuses almost exclusively on the lives of previously-wealth women and their ‘semi-gated’ insular circle. Martinessi saw this little-shown milieu as a way to examine the complexities and rigidities of class and gender as well as the nation’s story.
“In Paraguay, we went through many wars and the ones that helped with the recovery from that were always the women. So, from the start I wanted to talk about women. And the sense of entrapment is to do with the walls that [we] put around ourselves. This could be via a relationship, or social class. And people feel that there are these expectations placed upon them and that they cannot get out from them.”
One of the things the director likes about coming back into the country at intervals is both the anonymity and the refreshed perspective.
“With my film, I feel the narrative is one of coming back to look into the society and understand it. It wasn’t until I started to travel that I began to be able to understand Paraguay. And it is great to be in a place and to be anonymous where there are no expectations about who you are. [For example,] I feel that you have to respond in certain ways around things like class.”
The turbulent political history of the country is etched onto the lives and attitudes of its citizens, and Martinessi wanted to capture the way in which Paraguayans could feel both ‘imprisoned’ and self-censoring. The tension that underpins the story is the fear of losing everything in balance with the potential to really spread one’s wings.
“It’s a film about desires, and about characters that are really repressed. And that was the only way to talk about my society which has been run so much by dictators. And people do not seem to know what they want or how they feel. We had many dictators and there was always someone telling us what to do. In a way it was perhaps similar to Eastern Europe. But also, I feel that people of my age are children of a ‘lost generation’, a generation that was always reacting, always waiting for orders.”
The Heiresses starts with a muted palette and many scenes are deliberately underlit or filmed obliquely. However, as the narrative unfolds, and the lead character begins to embrace her adjusted identity, the film opens up. We wondered how much this ‘in and out of shadows’ style was deliberate. Martinessi explains that he and his long-term collaborators were consciously using all the elements of cinema to communicate the essence of the story.
“I have worked with the art director [Carlo Spatuzza] and the DOP [Luis Armando Arteaga] for more than a decade, and when they read the script they brought up a lot of their own ideas as to how we could visualise this ‘prison house’, which it is in a way. I was very sure that I wanted to see it through half open doors, in a way, so that to you can see the inside and the outside. And the house is deliberately darker in the beginning, and as the furniture comes out it is lighter, and you can see it opening up. When you are in a prison you only see the inside; that is why I didn’t want to show the exterior – which is absolutely beautiful by the way – until the end of the film.”
The film draws us into an intimate relationship with the ironically-titled ‘Heiresses’, and the performances that Martinessi gets from the actors are a huge part of the film’s subtle effectiveness. He explains how a certain fluidity and improvised attitude helped get that note of authenticity.
“A lot of the relationships in the film were not exactly as in the script. I always know where I intend to go but I do not know exactly what will happen. I don’t work with storyboards, I don’t close dialogue off. Every actress has their own way of doing things. For Chela [brilliant newcomer Ana Brun] it was her first film and she would do these really great takes. But she might have difficulty from, say, the seventh to the eighth take and then on the eighth take she would go back to what she did. So, it was so interesting for me to discover how each actress works, but once you have worked that out it is much better.”
In fact, the director made the Chela character central to the film in other ways too because she becomes a lens through which to see the whole microcosm.
“I wanted Ana to feel comfortable in her own skin so if she wanted to change things and say this and not that, we always talked it through. And she helped me to cast much of the film too. I cast all the people that already had a relationship with Chela. Chela is very European-looking; she stands out because she is not dark skinned. It is horrible how class is linked to skin [colour]. It is horrible, but it is the real world. That is one issue that the film approaches.”