DIR/WRI: Kleber Mendonça Filho • PRO: Saïd Ben Saïd, Emilie Lesclaux, Michel Merkt • DOP: Pedro Sotero, Fabricio Tadeu • ED: Eduardo Serrano • DES: Juliano Dornelles, Thales Junqueira • CAST: Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Irandhir Santos
Partly a drama about stoic individualism in a battle against a faceless corporation but also a multi-layered character study – Brazilian drama Aquarius stars Sonia Braga as Clara, a sixty-something retired music critic. She lives in the titular luxurious apartment bloc which has been home to her family for decades, having previous housed her aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez). A construction company, who want to acquire the property, begin strong-arming the protagonist into surrendering her home to them – having successfully driven out every other tenant. However, having survived cancer and the grief of losing her husband, Clara fights back with a fortitude – even when the corporation’s efforts turn increasingly sinister.
While this plot may bring to mind movies like Erin Brockovich or The Insider in the fight between one person vs The Man, Aquarius is far different. Writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighbouring Sounds) actually puts the fight between Clara and the corrupt company on the back-burner for a huge portion of its running time. Instead, the drama transcends from something viewers have seen before into a poetic portrait about the process of aging and the feeling of becoming increasingly outdated in an ever-changing (often for the worse) world. In the years that pass from the opening scene – where we see Clara as a younger woman (Barbara Colen) – to the present, our protagonist has become a relic from another time – one where individuality, culture and non-comformity were traits which were praised.
Early on we see Clara being interviewed in her home – filled to the brim with pop-art (an awesomely large Barry Lyndon poster takes up almost a full wall) – by two young journalists about the difference between physical media and digital. Our hero replies that she likes MP3s but that they lack the human touch of vinyl – recounting a story from thirty years prior about buying a John Lennon LP. Yet, the tale is lost on the young reporters and she is quoted in bold print stating “I like MP3s”. This difficulty in staying separated from the status quo as opposed to being swallowed up by it continues throughout. Old friends and relatives refer to her as “stubborn” in her efforts against the malevolent corporation, as opposed to seeing her very sensible side of the argument. Money means nothing to her. She wants to stay in the home where she lived with the love of her life and her deceased family, a place with which she has attached emotional significance – as opposed to seeing it turned into a plaything for a business (a universal problem as evident by Ireland’s own The Point becoming the horrendously corporate sounding the O2 and then the 3 Arena).
Sonia Braga is utterly mesmerizing as Clara, mustering up enough confidence in the way she moves to convey why the characters in the movie refer to her as “Dona Clara”. Yet, she also possesses a quiet fragility. A moment where she is rejected by a male lover due to her mastectomy scars is a masterclass in internalising by Braga. Yet, even with these moments of melancholy, it’s Braga’s fire one takes away from the movie, a powerful mite which makes her adversaries look tiny in comparison.
Aquarius also deserves unanimous acclaim for its depiction of an aging woman who has sexual desires which she fulfils. A potentially dodgy scene where Clara hires a male prostitute during a moment of loneliness is quite fascinating as the elderly female takes control of the situation. She is the one guiding the young male on what to do and it is she who asks him to leave after her sexual appetite is quenched.
If Aquarius has a problem, it’s perhaps that it’s too massive in scope. It touches on a wide range of issues – corruption and nepotism in Brazilian business and politics, the special meaning humans attach to places, old vs new, the clash of the individual against the status quo, how overcoming pain can make one stronger – themes which are only tangentially related. Although, I really like each scene – I could watch a TV show of Braga teaching her nephew how to court his girlfriend – at 145 minutes, the movie at times drags, particularly as scenes such as that with the gigolo don’t really merge with what follows.
That said, if one’s complaint about a movie is that it’s too much of a good thing – it could also be taken as a great compliment. Aquarius allows the viewer to spend nearly two and a half hours with an intriguing, interesting and complex character – made even more fascinating by Braga’s stellar work. Plus, as one leaves the cinema following the final scene of Dona Clara retaliating against her corporate enemies, you will be beaming.
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Aquarius is released 23rd March 2017