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A woman, 2 brothers and shifting allegiances

In the practical and humane `La Mujer de Mi Hermano,' the family members struggle to lead an ideal life.

April 14, 2006|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

As pared down, stylish and deceptively simple as the stark glass and concrete block inhabited by two of its main characters, "La Mujer de Mi Hermano" (My Brother's Wife) is an adultery drama that skips the big life lessons in favor of observing the mysteries of human interdependency and social behavior.

Peruvian director Ricardo de Montreuil has transposed the characters created by his compatriot, novelist Jaime Bayly, from Lima to Mexico City and has cast Mexican stars in three of the film's four principal roles. The idea behind the relocation was to broaden the film's global appeal, as Mexican films tend to be well received across Latin America and within the United States. Accents and local slang are duly adjusted, but the shift feels academic. "La Mujer de Mi Hermano" blooms inside only the most insular, intimate spaces, its characters untouched by the world around them. If anything, it's a reminder that class -- especially the upper echelons -- is a country unto itself that doesn't recognize geographical borders.

Disturbingly beautiful and melancholic Zoe (Barbara Mori) lives with her image-obsessed husband, Ignacio (Christian Meier), in an ultra-modern house -- half display case, half hothouse -- on the outskirts of the city. Ignacio is wealthy and doting but distant, and their marriage is affectionate but passionless. Ignacio's sterility and Zoe's refusal to consider adoption compound the feeling that the marriage has cruised into a cul-de-sac.

Zoe's complaints, which she shares with her gay friend Boris (Bruno Bichir), are legitimate, but it's Ignacio who elicits sympathy at first. Genuinely afraid of losing Zoe, he exudes a tightly wound, reined-in helplessness that's painful to watch. The feeling is cemented when Zoe starts hanging around with Ignacio's estranged younger brother, Gonzalo (Manolo Cardona), a painter who bad-mouths Ignacio at every opportunity but gladly takes his money each month. When Zoe drops by his gallery unexpectedly, Gonzalo sells her a painting from his show. The selling, rather than giving, becomes another point of contention between Gonzalo and Ignacio, but for Zoe it's a chance to get back at her husband.

The principal pleasures of the film lie in the subtle shifts in character that prompt shifts in allegiance, so I won't spoil them. The main thing is that "La Mujer de Mi Hermano" lets its characters' behaviors speak for themselves, which naturally lead the audience into snap judgments that evolve into something more fluid and forgiving.

Tall and broad, Meier has a rigid, hulking quality that serves him well as the high-strung businessman scared stiff of losing his wife. For a guy built like a pylon, he has a remarkable way of making himself small by tucking himself into a neat package.

Mori, a memorable presence, plays an instantly recognizable type nonetheless rarely seen onscreen. Zoe's uncommon beauty masks her neediness, insecurity and loneliness. Mexican star Angelica Aragon plays Cristina, the mother of Ignacio and Gonzalo, a woman who sees strictly what she wants to see and nothing more.

A final twist -- a bit of a corker -- threatens to push what has otherwise been a cool-headed emotional experience into the realm of melodrama. Despite this false note, "La Mujer de Mi Hermano" keeps a cool eye trained on its characters as they struggle to make their lives conform to some strict phantom ideal.

For a movie about an inter-family dalliance, it's far more pragmatic than you might expect, and far more humane. Ultimately, "La Mujer de Mi Hermano" offers the uncommon (in movieland) perspective that it may be the ideal that oppresses life, not the other way around.


`La Mujer de Mi Hermano' (My Brother's Wife)

MPAA rating: R for sexuality and language.

A Lionsgate release. Director Ricardo de Montreuil. Screenplay Jaime Bayly, based on his novel. Director of photography Andres E. Sanchez. Editor Rosario Suarez. Music by Angelo Milli. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

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