06/03/2013 03:33 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Reaching for the Moon : Bishop, Barreto and the Art of Losing

Leslie Hassler

I have walked and sat by the ponds In Central Park. I have ridden cars in the beautiful Brazilian landscape. I have left my country. I have lost my mind. I have listened to beautiful, passionate English words and have fired up Portuguese ones. I have lived in a place where government decisions have changed its people's concept of freedom and in a time where society still struggles, on a grand scale, to accept who we or our neighbors love and choose to be with. I have had a Brazilian-American love relationship. But none of it: the places, the languages, the struggles, the feelings, the relationship, not even in my glorifying minds eye, have the inviting beautiful images or the haunting powerful poetic words of Reaching for the Moon, the new movie by director Bruno Barreto (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands.)

Barreto's film, Reaching for the Moon, takes us on a fifteen year journey through a pivotal time in politics (the 1950's - 1960's), within two countries, in two languages, into the heart of alcoholism, depression and through creative triumphs. All while traveling through the lives of two women: the American poet Elizabeth Bishop and the Brazilian architect Lota De Macedo Soares, whose love relationship didn't bow to convention.

I am aware that places, times and relationships can be very specific to each one of us -- that my Central Park is a swarm of my own memories throughout different times of my growing adult life. But to all of us who have sat, walked, cried, loved, fought in it and to all the ones who have never been physically there, we can all have Central Park where a father teaches his son to ride a bicycle in Kramer vs. Kramer, where a kid is saved from danger by birds during the holiday season in Home Alone 2 or in the case of Reaching for the Moon, where we hear, maybe for the first time, the words of Elizabeth Bishop:

The art of losing isn't hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost, that their loss is no disaster
-Elizabeth Bishop

Our reasons for going to the movies and our reactions as we enter into peoples lives may differ, depending on who we are, but the one common thread we will all have is that there will always be one person who has brought the narrative to us... And so with that in mind, plus with the enormous curiosity of what makes an artist take on another artist's life, I sat with the director, Bruno Barreto, a Brazilian New Yorker himself, and his mother, producer Lucy Barretto, to try to unravel the blanket of their new film.

What was your muse, your inspiration...the thing that said, "I want to tell this story?"


Portrait by Leslie Hassler

Barreto: I'm gonna give you a very Freudian answer. There where two muses, my mother and my ex-wife, because the history of this project is that she (Lucy Barreto) fell in love with this story, she bought the rights of the first book (Rare and commonplace Flowers by Carmem L. Oliveira) that came out about this story and I wasn't interested...But then my ex-wife, Amy Irving, did a monologue which is also about the same story...She did it here (New York)...and then when I saw Amy doing it, maybe there is a story to be told here...and I started to get the itch.

The inspiration...

Barreto: But you know exactly what you said, what is the angle? What is this story really about?....After spending four years, you know, when you are having a shower then it comes back to you, and then you don't think about it for three or four months. And then it comes back to you. And then I told my mother,"I want to do this, but I don't know the angle." Then eventually it was clear to me, because most of her poetry, not all of it, was about loss... And of course, The Art of Losing "the hero poem," the essence of the movie is The Art of Losing...If you are going to win, you've got to know how to lose... I kept thinking about that, also with that concept, that the strong Lota, the winner Lota, becomes weaker and weaker because she can't deal with loss. And the dysfunctional, the loser, the weaker Elizabeth Bishop becomes stronger, because one way or another she deals with loss, she knows, she gets drunk, there are some bumps, but she deals with it. She doesn't shove it under the carpet or deny it, and because of that, the weaker becomes stronger, there is a reverse role, so that is when I found it. That is the essence of the film, that is why I want to tell this story, to talk about loss. That is the only way I am going to make this story, which is so specific a love story between two woman in Brazil in the fifties universal, because the theme of loss is universal and also ageless. Even when you are a baby you deal with loss, you are born dealing with loss, you die, the biggest loss of life, which is death.

How much liberty did you take? How specific were you in dealing with nonfiction characters?

Barreto: I've made a few films based on true characters, on true stories, Four Days in September, Last Stop 174, and now this film. I've always taken all the liberty I wanted, that is the first condition for me to tell a story, I am not a documentary filmmaker. I am a fiction storyteller. What I know and like to do is to tell fiction stories. What is important for me is the essence of the characters, I'm not going to turn them into something that they weren't. Otherwise, what is the point of basing your script on a true story? So the essence is kept, but in that I am going to take all the license I need and think should be taken in order to really focus on my angle because it is my take on that story...Otherwise it's just a nameless narrative.

You capture the time, you capture the coup and you capture the elitism. How important was the political time in telling the story?

Barreto: The political background was really not important. It was just important as it was needed for you to understand the characters... As a second layer of the narrative there is a cultural clash, which is not the same all the time. Many times Lota is way more American than Bishop, because Lota is the winner, she knows what she wants and she is positive all the time. So in that sense Bishop is more Brazilian, but then she isn't. That is what I think is so fascinating about the story, because they are not what you expect them to be all the time. But then there is a moment when Lota is really Brazilian, and one of the moments in which this really happens, is when they are talking about the coup, because Bishop says, "Wait a minute, this is a disaster, he was democratically elected, and there is a process." And Lota says, "What process? What are you talking about? This is South America, this is the process". And it makes perfect sense then, not today. And that is also what brings humor to the story... It is a tragic love story, but at the same time it is a funny love story.

What was your casting process like?

Barreto: That was a grueling, long and very bumpy process for many reasons. But it's not, as we say among ourselves, just that " the saint of casting" was watching over us...But in this case I think we ended up with the one and only, "The Otto" (Miranda Otto). I kept watching the film and I kept thinking, nobody else could have done it...Nobody else could have done Lota. That I knew before we did the film.

Did you know Gloria Pires was going to do it?

Barreto: Gloria came on the project before me.

Lucy Barreto: I really think we ended up with Bishop with Miranda...

Barreto: She became Bishop. She is a method actress, she is like Daniel Day-Lewis, she becomes the character. She emerged completely...She was Bishop.

How was it? To see Gloria Pires and Miranda Otto work together?

Barreto: It worked really well; they couldn't be more opposite acting-wise. The way they work... So symmetrically opposite... but they intersect somewhere in the middle. And the chemistry on the screen, they're just great. But it was fascinating to me, and yet I've never been so exhausted. I had two extremely intelligent and demanding actresses asking me questions twenty-four hours a day...My next film I said I would be doing with only men...(Laughs)

Your next film?

Barreto: No... Well, kind of ...because it was 'What about this? What about that?' Every inch of the process was questioned. Everything. And they all made sense, they were no silly questions by any means because they are smart. It was exhausting and sometimes I said 'I don't know the answer. We're going to discover together. That is what we are here for'. I was very honest with them.
Lucy Barreto: It took sooo long you know? But anyway, as Bruno said, she was Bishop...and from the color of their skin, the two of them (Miranda, and Gloria) are beautiful together.


Portrait by Leslie Hassler

They are beautiful together, Bishop and Lota, played by Miranda and Gloria, who had their lives told by Barreto, who was inspired by his mother Lucy, who read a book by Carmen, that ends with the biggest loss of all.

There are a million different reasons why we may go watch, read or see people and their stories, but I believe that what makes us react, as we laugh in the movies, cry as we read poetry or even stand in front of a painting way longer than we thought possible is a thread that runs a little deeper, either we can pin point it or not.
My Central Park, not even on the most beautiful crisp autumn day will look like Barreto's, nor will my words ever sound like Bishop's (a girl can only dream). But independently what parks we go to, how many countries have we called home, how many languages we speak or whom we love, we all have lost something, somehow, someday and either we are good at dealing with losses, and acknowledging victories, or we are still struggling with losing grip of the things that should be no more. We may all get an insight or two from the one who has mastered the "Art" of it (Bishop), as we follow the thread of the one who has brought her to us (Barreto).

Elizabeth Bishop:

I have lost 2 cities, lovely ones. And vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent. I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.
Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident the art of losing's not too hard to master though it may look like (write it!) like a disaster.

For more of photographer Leslie Hassler's work: