The unseen is as important as what is seen in Alice’s House, a domestic drama from Brazil that manages to be both spare and stifling. Director Chico Teixeira, in his feature debut after years of making documentaries, is less interested in recording incidents than with showing their ripple effects. With a couple of exceptions, the juiciest bits happen off camera, yet their consequences are riveting, thanks in no small measure to sympathetic performances by Carla Ribas and Berta Zemel.
Forty-something manicurist Alice (Ribas) shares a Sao Paulo apartment with her husband, three young-adult sons and mother Dona Jacira (Zemel), and one can’t blame her for not wanting to live there anymore. Her cabdriver spouse Lindomar is a chauvinist pig who has affairs with teenage girls. Her eldest son is doing his military service and has a sideline as a male hustler; her lazy middle child steals money from his grandmother; and Alice’s youngest, whom she dotes on, is a handsome high-school student undergoing his sexual awakening.
Amid an atmosphere ripe with all kinds of hormones, Alice, groping for fulfillment in every aspect of her life, is no saint. She has an affair with her best client’s husband, who turns out to be one of her childhood sweethearts. Although her eyesight is failing, her mother Jacira sees everything. While efficiently running the household—doing all the cleaning, laundry and cooking—she’s omniscient, quietly noting each family member’s secret while they take her for granted. Lindomar, presumably aware of her low opinion of him and the fact that the apartment is in her name, wants to send Jacira away to a nursing home.
The stage is intimate and the shots mostly tight, which contributes to a sense of emotional and psychological claustrophobia. Teixeira and his three writing collaborators don’t waste anything during short, elliptical scenes that take place inside the apartment, in the beauty parlor where Alice works, on the bus during her commute and in a few bars and cafes. It’s unclear how much time is passing, and Alice’s desire to free herself from her marriage provides the main sense of urgency.
She and Jacira have a superstitious bent and share a vaguely magical belief in fate. That faith is being eroded in their daily lives, but according to the movie’s satisfyingly open-ended conclusion, it hasn’t been completely extinguished—at least not for Jacira. Wafts of hope and loveliness pass through this study in fetid familial strife, helping dissipate the sense that it’s more anti-male than pro-woman. Regardless of the exact nature of its feminism, Alice’s House is a fascinating edifice. You may not want to live there either, but you won’t regret spending time under its roof.
Cast: Carla Ribas, Vinicius Zin, Ricardo Vilaca, Felipe Massuia, Berta Zemel, Zecarlos Machado, Renata Zhaneta, Luciano Quirino and Mariana Leighton
Director: Chico Teixeira
Screenwriters: Chico Teixeira, Julio Pessoa, Sabina Anzuategui and Marcel Gomes
Producers: Patrick Leblanc and Zita Carvalhosa
Genre: Drama; Portuguese-language, subtitled
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: January 25, 2008 ltd.