September 24, 2008

Alice Offers Plenty of Advice, Melodrama

By Michael Janusonis

The Providence Latin American Film Festival opens today with a 6 p.m. screening of Bolivian activist director Jorge Sanjines' Ukamau at the Salomon Center on the Brown University campus, and an 8 p.m. showing of the film XXY at the Rhode Island School of Design's Chace Center.

But the festival really gets up to speed tomorrow with screenings through Sunday of more than 35 films at sites ranging from the Cable Car Cinema to the Columbus Theatre.

One of the films showing tomorrow (and Sunday) will be the lauded Brazilian film Alice's House, a more bitter than sweet tale of the disintegration of a family.

It doesn't start out that way. Director Chico Teixeira, who co- wrote the script with three other writers, opens the film at breakfast where we are introduced to the vivacious Alice (Carla Ribas), her often-out-of-work taxi driver husband Lindomar, her three sons and her mother Dona Jacira, who lives with the family in their Sao Paulo apartment where she is looked upon as a cook- housekeeper.

But quickly we see -- when a young family friend, Thais, comes to Alice seeking advice about her affair with a much older married man - - that Alice is a sounding board and advice giver for her family, friends and customers. Thais asks Alice for some sort of potion -- which turns out to be a perfume called "Grovel at My Feet" -- to keep the man in her life.

Alice works at a beauty salon where she gives manicures and pedicures, along with dispensing soap, perfume, nail polish and advice. Mostly we see her with Carmen, a pretty young woman who seems to have everything in the world she could want, including a rich husband who is passionate for her, a nice apartment and a swanky foreign automobile. Alice, who takes the bus to work and supports her family on her salary, is envious, but not in a catty way. She doesn't begrudge Carmen her life. She only wishes hers was more like Carmen's.

This is all the calm before the whirlwind of a storm that will envelop the characters in Alice's House. It will sweep away the pleasant niceties of the film's early scenes and will encompass two adulteries, petty thievery, homosexuality, sibling hostilities and the makings of a nervous breakdown. Even Dona Jacira, the ever- patient grandma who quietly works without grumbling while storm clouds gather, is not immune to the turmoil since the layabout Lindomar wants to put her away in a rest home to get her out of the crowded apartment.

Alice's House is a melodramatic tale, not unlike the soap operas Dona Jacira listens to on the radio, often using contrivances to push the plot forward, such as when Carmen's husband turns out to be one of Alice's old high school boyfriends. In the end, even the goodhearted Alice, who begins trying to fight fire with fire on the romantic front, seems played for a fool. Alice's House is a melancholy tale relentlessly spiraling ever downward. When a character is killed unexpectedly, it seems a plot device. Just like the soap opera it is.

Alice's House will go on screen at 6 p.m. tomorrow at the RISD Auditorium and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Columbus Theatre. General admission is $8 at the door.

** 1/2

Alice's House

Starring: Carla Ribas, Berta Zemel, Zecarlos Machado, Vincius Zinn, Ricardo Vilaca. In Portuguese with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated, contains violence, sexual situations, adult themes.

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Originally published by Michael Janusonis, Journal Arts Writer.

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