The Destitute Elite
The heiresses are Chela and Chiquita, two women from wealthy Paraguayan families, existing in the very particular destitution of the privileged. They are asset-rich but cash poor and we see outlines on the wall where original art once hung. This is a film about a bourgeois decline, the conversion of debt to fraud through the use of promissory notes. It’s not vultures that are circling, but a very particular class of friend, a very particular kind of wealth.
Chiquita (Margarita Trun) is the one bound for debtor’s prison, leaving Chela (Ana Brun, in an exceptional performance) behind. Chela is left behind with a new maid, an old car, and free time. The old car is a pristine green Mercedes 240d. A request for a lift from a neighbor (Maria Martins) gives Chela new drive and through her there are new opportunities, new landscapes, new roads, new affections.
This small, carefully-constructed Paraguayan drama is the story of Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun), two aging women of the upper classes in the capital of Asunción, who appear to have been together almost all of their adult lives. Their inherited wealth has dwindled, and as debts run up Chiquita is sent to prison for fraud. We can see her imprisonment as a moment of anti-LBGT discrimination, as the court case against her was initially simply one of debt, which was then upped to fraud.
With Chiquita, the louder and more forthright of the two, in prison, Chela is left to find a new source of money herself, which she does by starting an informal taxi service driving a group of old ladies around, despite having no driving license.
As a character study based around class, race, sexuality and gender, the film has a lot to say. It’s hard not to miss that the new maid hired by Chela and Chiquita, Pati (Nilda Gonzalez), is black and is treated with a mixture of disdainful annoyance and benevolence by her two employers – the very fact that they keep a maid on hand despite their needing to sell off the family silver is evidence of how unwilling they are to change their lifestyle, though Chiquita’s adaptation to prison life at least suggests she is more willing to change than the introverted and shy Chela. There’s also the suggestion that their social status at least protects them from the worst excesses of anti-LBGT discrimination, as Chela never brings up her sexuality to the gaggle of elder ladies, she forms a small friendship with.
Stylistically, director Marcelo Martinessi loves the dark, dilapidated shadows of the aging house in which his two protagonists live – the opening scene is shot as if snaking up to and spying into the place.
The film is so determined to be subtle in its studiousness, that it sometimes forgets to make a point at all, expect for all the numerous elements we can half pick up and debate thereafter.
“The Heiresses” has had many recent award wins. “From the outset, both Braun and Irun are subtly superb. Quiet and thoughtful in their movements and dialogue, they make their characters’ 30 year relationship look so real. Braun’s ability to portray heartbreak and loneliness, all through discreet facial expressions, is like no other – the lost, vacant look in her eyes, searching for Chiquita’s reassuring presence. The same goes for Irun; though she doesn’t change physically during her stay inside, her attitude changes and it’s hard to watch. She’s grown a thicker skin, there’s a sharper tone to her voice. She’s the pack leader and she likes it. This isn’t the Chiquita Chela fell in love with, but she’s changed, too.”
Director Marcelo Martinessi uses a beautiful visual style, keeping the camera tight on his actors’ faces and movements. The film hits on the themes of love, loss, personal growth and change and it is a pleasure to watch.