Women’s fear of aging is deeply rooted in mass media representation of elderly female characters. They are often overlooked or tend to appear on screen as passive, unbalanced or struggling with health issues. With his unique and surprisingly mature debut feature, Marcelo Martinessi goes against this harmful tendency and presents a financially ruined bourgeois woman in her fifties, capable of taking her life into her own hands.

The heroine of the Berlinale Competition film THE HEIRESSES (LAS HEREDERAS, Paraguay-Uruguay-Germany-Brazil-Norway-France) comes from noble family but slowly loses her privileged position in society. When her partner Chiquita (Margarita Irún) is accused of fraud and imprisoned, Chela (Ana Brum) seems paralysed, but later she starts the first job in her life that brings her challenges and unsettling encounters.

The Paraguayan director-screenwriter focuses on a contemporary universe where men are simply left out of the frame. In a condensed world like this, generational and social issues come more to the forefront. The impoverished Chela starts working as a driver, transporting obnoxious bourgeois women who are older than her. They tend to complain about their maids and spread gossip; their behavior foreshadows what Chela could have become had she not been forced to leave her luxurious life behind. While observing the upper class with sharp criticism, the director portrays lower social classes with empathy.

Luis Armando Artega’s complex and innovative cinematography supports these observations and the dramatic development. Chela’s exclusion from her social class is emphasised by shots that often show her alone, behind a closed door listening to conversations percolating through the wall. Mirrors and frames within frames enable collage-like images where the viewer can observe a tableau of up to eight faces at the same time. The visuals skillfully reflect Chela’s transformation. Initially she is often portrayed from the back. Even before she becomes a driver, the viewer already seems to be watching the nape of her neck from the black seat. Later on, as her rejuvenation unfolds, her face and body get more and more exposed. Some of these images have an erotic quality, implying that her active life has not yet ended. Such a vivid portrayal of Martinessi’s central heroine emancipates a woman facing the constraints of class and age.