Blatant machismo meets muted feminism in this sturdy examination of this film’s title character, a working wife & mom who lives with her husband and their three teenage sons in her mother’s Sao Paolo apartment. In a brisk hour and a half, director Chico Teixeira explores contemporary Brazilian life by minutely observing the daily routines of the six people who comprise Alice’s family. Her husband, a part-time cabdriver and full-time philanderer, wants nothing more from the two women he lives with than a comfortable roof over his head, a steady supply of clean clothes and timely-prepared, home-cooked meals. Her sons, (an army cadet and a pair of secondary school students) spend their free time draped over living room chairs watching T.V., negotiating cash and gifts from Alice and her mother and resorting to stealing from the women if their pleading doesn’t work. Like their father, they communicate with grunts of recognition and monosyllabic demands for attention to their needs, forcing Alice to seek everyday conversation with her aging mother and the clients of the beauty parlor where Alice works as a manicurist.
Alice and her friends discuss their sexual needs with each other endlessly, but without any real expectation that their appetites will be satisfied. That hunger for fulfillment, combined with an unexpressed but near desperate desire for more control over their lives in Brazil’s male-dominated culture plays out via the recurring background presence of a radio program to which Alice and her mother are addicted. It features the disembodied voice of a smarmy male radio personality whose patter accompanies Alice and her mother throughout their daily labors, dispensing a mixture of astrological, theological and psychological treacle that promises relief from the anxieties which dog their lives. Alice’s mother clings to this mellifluous pap as though she was nursing at her mother’s breast, while Alice and her colleagues reinforce the appeal of the broadcaster’s sugary assurances of unrealistic romanticism in the vaguely articulated aspirations which pepper their daily conversations.
Warm and outgoing, Alice craves intimacy and it appears in the form of an old boyfriend who just happens to be married to one of Alice’s best customers. For different reasons, both are unhappy with their spouses, though Alice soon discovers that her desire for genuine commitment from her lover to their relationship isn’t going to occur.
Following an explosive confrontation with one of her husband’s serial mistresses, Alice begins to plan her escape. In an act of quietly defiant independence, she packs a suitcase and, under the guise of visiting an old friend, Alice leaves her family behind, tenuously seeking a more fulfilling life. Expecting her prompt return, husband and middle son shuffle Alice’s mother off to a nursing home; the film ends with shots of a household bereft of a female to run it for the quartet of males who’ve treated the women in their family with such craven thoughtlessness.
All this would amount to little more than a soap opera were it not for the remarkably appealing performance of Carla Ribas in title role and the shrewd attention to the details of working-class Brazilian life provided by Teixeira, who works from his own script. Ribas, making only her third screen appearance here, provides a richly detailed portrait of a vibrant woman whose potential for life-affirming intimacy lies suffocating under her husband’s callousness and the indifference of her sons. Middle-aged and rather plain, she nevertheless exudes an appealing sexuality thwarted by her husband’s infidelities, which manifest themselves in his casual and detached sexual rejection of her.
Alice’s House has already garnered “best film” awards from a half-dozen film festivals in Central and South America, suggesting that this low-key sociological examination speaks truthfully in its dissection of women’s role in contemporary society across The Americas.
The verdict? Straightforward in presentation and modest in appearance, Alice delivers the goods.
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