“Alice’s House” is an extraordinary Brazilian film brilliantly conceived and well worth seeing. This kitchen drama is a refreshing naturalistic look at an urban middle-class São Paulo family, one that is thrown into turmoil by sexual and emotional betrayal. The ever-resonating Carla Ribas in the title role takes us on an arduous journey where she is repeatedly rebuffed as she searches for liberation and romance.
The story revolves around forty-something Alice who works as a manicurist in a beauty salon. She shares an apartment on the outskirts of the city with her mother, Dona Jacira, her husband, Lindomar, a taxi-driver, and their three sons, Lucas, Edinho, and Junior. The film is about a woman’s everyday life in which she alludes herself and makes the same mistakes repeatedly. With its small actions, intimate internalizations, and daily frustrations, nothing is safe in this emotional emptiness. It’s a fragile family, one that could deteriorate and break up at any moment.
At home, the men pay little attention to Alice while at work she lives an engaging life. The warm environment of the beauty parlor offers hope while her cramped apartment life stifles it with narcissistic indifference. With co-workers and customers, she can tell jokes, have after-work drinks and commiserate about wanting something better.
Everyone in Alice’s world has a secret: her husband has developed a passion for underage girls; one of her sons is a gay hustler, another is a petty thief, and the youngest is tormented by his sexual awakenings, while her old mother is slowly going blind. Even her clients have secrets and soon Alice succumbs to the same sexual intrigue and deception, and develops a secret life of her own.
Director Chico Teixeira creates a highly detailed world for these characters both in their emotional and physical worlds. By the end of the film, one cannot only describe Alice’s cramped apartment but also the wants and desires of each and every character. The film also provides a look into Brazil’s unpretentious culture and its casual approach to sex, at least among the middle class. Sex, love, romance are the forces in this story and even the grandmother finds comfort in the voice of a radio talk-show host. Her quest is to be a winner on his call-in show.
Navigating this story may take some effort, as there is no music to lead you though its sensibilities. Thus, the judgments you arrive at are likely to be your own. This makes the acting of Carla Ribas in the lead role even more remarkable. Her range depicts a myriad of emotions that propels the story through its innocent flirtations, dramatic entanglements and their harsh consequences. Teixeira, the director, uses silence to focus on this inner turmoil. There is one scene where Alice can’t sleep and goes out on the balcony to settle her nerves. Her mother (Berta Zemel) comes out and stands by her side never speaking yet relating. It’s a poignant scene where the mother, though going blind, ironically sees and feels everything that her daughter endures. By being just there, that’s enough.
On shooting without using dialogue the director said, “I found out that the body speaks for itself, like a dance. I learned that bodies speak a lot.”
Produced with limited resources “Alice’s House” is extraordinary film, one that is unique and inventive in many ways. It addresses a variety of deceptions along with the tragedy of a woman tied down to family, yet longs to be liberated from the boredom and monotony in her life. In spite of the ordeals she faces, she has the optimism and resiliency to make us root for her happiness. The hand-held camera gracefully finds those moments of realization, reflection, and hope contrasted with pain.
Carla Ribas is a stage actress who took up acting at age 35 and won the role on the recommendations of famed drama coach and casting director Fatima Toledo. It is Carla’s first feature film role, one that has already given her numerous awards plus industry-wide recognition. The excellent ensemble cast is also right on target. Prior to production, they worked together for three months under the tutelage of Fatima Toledo. The actors never saw the script but instead took their lines from Fatima’s enactments.
A celebrated documentary filmmaker Tico Teixeira is lauded for his ability to get his subjects to open up about their innermost feelings. This experience is most evident in “Alice’s House,” his award-winning first feature, an extraordinary insightful film that is well worth seeing.
CREDITS: Directed by Chico Teixeira “Alice’s House” stars Carla Ribas, Berta Zemel, Zecarlos Machado, Luciano Quirino, Renata Zhaneta, Vinicius Zinn, Ricardo Vilaca, Felipe Massuia and Mariana Leighton. Screenplay by Chico Teixeira, Julio Pessoa, Sabina Anzuategui, and Marcelo Gomes. Director of Photography; Mauro Pinheiro Jr. 92 Minutes. In Portuguese with English subtitles, Unrated. Available on DVD.