Film recommendation: The Heiresses (Las herederas)

This award-winning drama is a richly resonant character study and a commentary on Paraguayan class structure, beautifully portrayed by its impressive cast.

The Heiresses is a love story set in Paraguay among the complacent wealthy gentry of the nation’s capital, Asunción. Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun) have lived together all their adult lives – during which they’ve never had to do a day’s work – in a beautifully appointed house that belonged to Chela’s family.

As the story begins, disaster has struck. Chiquita is in trouble with the bank and  she must go to jail while her debts remains unpaid and the couple suffer the humiliation of selling most of their possessions. Chiquita, robustly confident, immediately settles into prison life but shy Chela is struggling with life on her own.

While Chiquita is ‘away’, Chela receives a request from an equally entitled old neighbour, the formidable and opinionated Pituca (María Martins), to act as her driver. Chela finds she enjoys being useful and gains in confidence. The fascinating and sensual Angy (Ana Ivanova) also wants to be driven, and the pair begin a flirtatious friendship. Chela can hardly believe that this gorgeous, complex younger woman actually finds her attractive and begins to see herself in a new light. As Chiquita’s prison sentence comes to an end, Chela must work out what her future will be.

Writer-director Marcelo Martinessi was interested in the generation of lesbian women from around the 60s/70s who grew up under the oppression of the dictatorship and had internalised the homophobia of that system. It was important for him to show that these women are not militant and that they are not modern lesbian women fighting for their rights. They are from a society where they had to grow up with borrowed identities, trying to be themselves but also playing someone else at the same time because they weren’t fully accepted by their own people.

The Heiresses won the FIPRESCI prize at the 2018 Berlin Film Festival, an award for a feature film that opens new perspectives, and Ana Brun also won the Silver Bear for Best Actress.

Martinessi, a male director, has written a very female film. He says: “I grew up with a mother, grandmother, sisters, aunties, great aunties – a lot of women around me. And I also admire a lot of women’s cinema, such as Fassbinder films, Todd Haynes, many directors that work with actresses. I was happy to find a great cast, so I think it just came very organically.”

A superb first feature from Marcelo Martinessi, this entirely female-driven story is full of gentle wit and playful observations on the crumbling upper echelons of Paraguayan society … The acting throughout is strong, and Brun is terrific. It’s a performance of tragicomic genius that plays out in arched eyebrows and stabbing side-eye swipes at other women … I will certainly be watching with interest to see what Martinessi does next.  Wendy Ide, The Observer

The Heiresses is on Amazon Prime.

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