Poetry News

Paris Review Heads to Brazil for a Look into Elizabeth Bishop's Latest Appearance on the Big Screen

By Harriet Staff


The Paris Review heads to Brazil to consider the legendary Elizabeth Bishop's years in Rio de Janeiro. Bishop's time there, with her lover, Lota de Macedo Soares, is the inspiration behind the new film, Reaching for the Moon.

When I first traveled to Rio de Janeiro to research all things Elizabeth Bishop, in 2002, I did not understand how or why everyone—from university professors to taxi drivers, artisans, artists, and entrepreneurs—had something to say about a poeta norteamericana. I quickly learned that I had to spend less time explaining why I was in Brazil and more time listening to stories and parsing through advice on how to find the things I might be looking for, new clues to understanding Bishop’s creative period in the country with “too many waterfalls.” And when I went to Petrópolis to look for the house, a Fazenda Samambaia, that Bishop shared with her Brazilian lover Lota de Macedo Soares, the architect of aristocratic means who envisioned and built Rio de Janeiro’s Parque do Flamengo after New York’s Central Park, I am proud to say I made it as far as the front gate. I knocked and the housekeeper cracked it open and said that the lady of the house was not at home, she was traveling abroad and there was no way to allow me inside, not even for a quick look at the garden.

It turns out that Bruno Barreto has a story, too, of what led him to make Reaching for the Moon (2013), a film about Bishop and Lota inspired by a bestselling book that was first published in Brazil in 1995. Bruno’s mother, Lucy Barreto, one of the film’s producers, has long loved Bishop’s poetry and once met Bishop and Lota at a lunch in Samambaia, years ago; she, Barreto’s mother, was the one who bought the rights to Carmen L. Oliveira’s bestseller Flores raras e banalíssimas: A história de Lota de Macedo Soares e Elizabeth Bishop, a novelistic account composed with details from personal interviews and much archival research. At first, Bruno Barreto was not interested in telling Bishop and Lota’s love story, and then something clicked. He wanted to make a film about loss.

In Reaching for the Moon, the natural splendor of Samambaia adds to the intensity of the drama. In addition to writing poems and being the loneliest person who ever lived, Bishop beds her lover, gets drunk, and behaves badly, over and over again. Barreto wanted to call the film The Art of Losing, but the distributors refused; no one would go see it with such a downer for a title. In Portuguese the film is titled Flores Raras, or “strange flowers,” taken from Oliveira’s book. The English title calls to mind the Irving Berlin song, included on the film’s soundtrack as performed by Ella Fitzgerald. The phrase “reaching for the moon” refers to the towering lampposts Lota designed to illuminate the Parque do Flamengo at night while creating the effect of moonlight. The moon lights up the opening stanzas of Bishop’s Rio de Janeiro poem “Going to the Bakery,” not least because she offsets the dimness of “our rationed electricity”:

Instead of gazing at the sea / the way she does on other nights,
the moon looks down the Avenida
Copacabana at the sights,

new to her but ordinary.

Both Lota’s and Bishop’s moons provide vital light. In this way, the film’s English title underscores the narrative about two artists daring to fall in love.

Read more at Paris Review online.

Originally Published: November 14th, 2013