By: STEVE ERICKSON
LOVE FOR SALE
Directed by Karim Ainouz
In Portuguese with English subtitles
Opens Aug. 15
"Love for Sale" originally went by the title "Suely in the Sky." Its new name is certainly accurate, as the plot does involve prostitution. However, the original title -- perhaps a twist on the Beatles's "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"-- suggests a play with identity and yearning for transcendence missing from its blunter replacement.
Openly gay Brazilian director Karim Ainouz's film indulges a lyrical streak only at its beginning and end -- the rest of the time, its images are rather matter-of-fact. Even so, his vision of the sky is remarkably beautiful.
After opening with home movies, "Love for Sale" offers long shots in which the horizon makes up most of the frame, and ends with a three-minute scene where the sky once again dominates the image. Its characters dream of the freedom of the open highway; in spirit, this is a road movie, even though the entire film takes place in one town.
After living in Sao Paulo for several years, Hermila (Hermila Guedes) comes back to her hometown, the Northeastern village of Iguatu. Arriving with her newborn son, Mateus, she lives with her aunt and grandmother and waits for her husband to come.
After a while, she realizes that he has abandoned her. She gets back together with an ex-boyfriend (Joao Miguel) but ends the relationship quickly. To make ends meet, she sells tickets for a whiskey raffle.
However, in order to get out of Iguatu, she needs more money. After hanging out with Georgina (Georgina Castro), a prostitute friend, she creates Suely, an alter ego who raffles her own body off for the chance to escape.
Ainouz's debut, "Madame Sata," brought the Bohemian world of 1930s Rio to life with vivid color and imagination. Telling the true story of a thuggish drag queen's life, it's as true to the spirit of novelist Jean Genet as any direct adaptation of his work. The world of "Madame Sata" was both violent and inviting.
In "Love for Sale," the background is equally important. Despite the beauty of the landscape around Iguatu, it's not a pleasant place. While "Love for Sale" is set in the present, one gets the impression that life there hasn't changed in decades.
It's the kind of town that drives some people to sniff nail polish remover for kicks. It has a frontier edge, where much of the business is semi-legal: at one point, Hermila considers selling bootleg DVDs. It would be easy to re-imagine the story as a Western or transplant Hermila to the world of the TV series "Deadwood."
"Love for Sale" evokes small-town ennui all too well. While "Madame Sata" was vibrant and garish enough to please its protagonist, Ainouz's second film aims for realism. The actors all use their own first names. In scenes of daily routine, where Hermila walks around trying to raffle whiskey tickets, one could believe that the scene was filmed with a hidden camera.
The film never integrates its taste for beautiful landscapes with its devotion to the quotidian: the two rest side by side without gelling.
Hermila has big dreams, but she has trouble expressing them; "Love for Sale" shares the same difficulty.
Ainouz celebrates strong women, introducing a large cast of female characters with smaller roles around Hermila. However, "Love for Sale" alternates between presenting Hermila's prostitution as liberating and depicting it as an act of desperation. She insists that she's not really degrading herself, as she's only going to end up sleeping with one man for money. While this might sound like a rationalization, Ainouz says much the same in the press kit: she acts as a prostitute only once... yet she collects money from 200 tricks.
"Love for Sale" bares the stigma that comes with sex work -- while suggesting that under patriarchy, women don't have much to lose even if men think less of them for expressing their sexuality. It still offers its heroine an easy way out.
Hermila suffers the disapproval of her family and neighbors, but escapes the most serious consequences by using the raffle earnings to escape Iguatu for a town where no one knows what she did to get there. At best, "Love for Sale" seems radically nonjudgmental; at worst, it's yet another male fantasy of happy hooking.