AQUARIUS (2016) review
written by: Kleber Mendonça Filho
produced by: Saïd Ben Saïd, Emilie Lesclaux and Michel Merkt
directed by: Kleber Mendonça Filho
runtime: 140 min.
U.S. release date: May 17, 2016 (Cannes) and October 21, 2016 (limited)
At one point, during something of a family intervention, 65-year-old Clara’s daughter frustratingly declares something we’ve already learned, “You’re so stubborn!”, she says, next to her two brothers, “You’re like an old lady and a child!” Under her breath, Clara agrees and so do we, which is one of the many reasons why we love her in “Aquarius”. Brazilian writer/director Kleber Mendonca Filho has created one of the most soulful and strong characters I’ve seen on-screen all year in Clara and he’s extremely fortunate to have Brazilian-born Sonia Braga portraying her, in what is certainly some career-best work from the radiant and sublime actress. I usually don’t just come out and say this so quickly, but I loved this film. I really and truly did.
“Aquarius” mostly takes place in modern-day Brazil, along the beautiful beach shoreline in Recife, capital of the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco. The story revolves around Donna Clara (Braga) a retired music critic living on her own in the breezy ocean-facing apartment where she raised all three of her children with her late husband. She has a housekeeper friend, Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto) to keep her company and is surrounded by loaded book shelves, a killer vinyl collection with the likes of Queen and Taiguara, and a poster of Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” on a wall. But Clara is the sole remaining resident in this grand art deco apartment, called Aquarius, which is now being targeted by a property developer who will likely replace her home with a high-rise. There’s no concern with maintaining the character and vibe of the beach community, instead the focus is just on modernizing and raking advantage of the ripe property value. Well, they don’t know who they’re dealing with.
When the young developer with the Bonfim company, Diego (Humberto Carreo) shows up at Clara’s door, along with his grandfather, who also works for the property developer and the building’s property manager, to offer Clara a generous buyout, the defiant woman doesn’t even let them in, keeping the conversation in the doorway. That first conversation is well-mannered and composed all around, but the men will soon see just how resilient and steadfast she is in her decision.
Clara is not just trying to be difficult. Aquarius is her home. She raised her family there, survived breast cancer there and where she became a grandmother. She’s friends with the young lifeguard, Roberval (Irandhir Santos “Elite Squad: Enemy Within”), who works across the street and enjoys having her nephew, and his new girlfriend Julia (Julia Bernat), come over and visit. It’s more than a home, it’s her history. They hope Clara will come around and try to push her to reverse her decision, harassing her by throwing a loud orgy in the apartment above (she cranks and lip-syncs “Fat Bottomed Girls” in return) and leaving feces on the stairwell steps. Clara isn’t all aggression though, she is reasonably concerned and anxious, wondering what legal options she has, but never once does she consider moving elsewhere, even declaring that the only way she would leave is if she died.
It seems like a simple plot, but Mendonca Filho relishes in the minutia of life, those moments that remain in our memory years and decades later, becoming cherished experiences and longing feelings. He is thankfully in no hurry to give us useless exposition or hurry along his narrative and instead takes time to focus on complex feelings, natural depictions of family interactions and passions, be they artistic or sexual. As a director, he is a visually confident and deliberate storyteller and as a screenwriter, he meticulously establishes how important each character is in the story.
When the film starts, it is 1980 and Mendonca Filho takes us from the beach to the interior of the Aquarius where young Clara (Bárbara Colen) and her family are throwing a 70th birthday party for the family’s spirited Tia Lucia (Thaia Perez), a woman who will shape and influence who Clara will become. It’s a prologue that immediately pulled me in, primarily due to the director’s exquisite focus on his actors and how the fluid camerawork from Pedro Sotero and Fabrico Tadeu (both of whom worked with Mendonca Filho on his previous, and first, film “Neighboring Sounds” from 2012) hones in on the natural feel of a family gathering, giving us an idea of not only who’s who, but of the family dynamic. In this one opening sequence, we learn so much – Clara’s affinity for music (specifically Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust”), the fact that a septuagenarian woman still has sexual longings/thoughts (and how a certain furniture item plays into that) and why Clara’s short-cropped hair informs viewers of a recent challenge she has overcome. This opening plays like a song in and of itself, with new instruments (information) coming in as the sequence continues to make a rich and complex concerto.
After that opening, we fast-forward to the present where Clara’s adult children, including the sensible daughter, Ana Paula (Maeve Jinkings, “Neon Bull” and “Neighboring Sounds”), herself recently divorced and raising a toddler. Mendonca Filho and his cast excel at showing both the reservations and frustrations Clara’s children have as they try to speak their mind during a conversation with their mother about her living situation. The filmmaker is careful to take the time to wait for the character’s response and expressiveness – his dialogue is great here, but he is just as concerned with what happens between each line – what is unsaid. Of course, some regretful things are said, as they often are in family conversations, when we see Clara defend her position and express her feelings in a spirited albeit exasperated manner.
Clara is just as intelligent and articulate as she is proud and sensitive, which adds to the magnetic complexity of Braga’s portrayal. Although there are many characters in “Aquarius”, including the titular building, which was built-in the 1940s, our attention is always on Braga. Her expressions and observations – sometimes subtle, other times wonderfully obvious – are a joy to watch. There really is nothing like seeing Braga’s Clara pull out an LP, play it on her record player and dance to this music that passionately speaks to her soul. Braga conveys a great confidence with who her character is, embracing Clara’s motivations and desires, both artistically and sexually. She may not be an easy person to deal with, but there’s no arguing her forceful presence as well as the intensity of her appetites.
The timing of the release of “Aquarius” here in the States couldn’t be better, since Braga was recently seen in Marvel’s Netflix series “Luke Cage” as Soledad Temple, mother to Claire, as played by Rosario Dawson (better casting doesn’t exist). I was surprised and delight to see her in that role, so when “Aquarius” came to my awareness, I become quite interested. As I watched Braga work, I found myself realizing how much I’ve missed her appearances in more noticeable (mainstream, I guess) movies – since discovering her in “Kiss of the Spider Woman”, “The Milagro Beanfield War”, “Moon Over Parador” and having her way with Clint Eastwood in “The Rookie” – and at the same time realizing that the role of Clara simply could not be played by anyone else.
It says quite a bit that the plot involving the future of her home isn’t as interesting as simply spending time with Clara. Whether it’s watching her go out dancing with her friends, going out with a guy her age or having sex with a guy her son’s age, this is a person living life to the There is more to Braga’s sexagenarian character than meets the eye, but just about every male character who meets eyes with her can’t help but to admire her or fall for her, or literally proclaim to her that she’s beautiful. Clara’s heard it before and sees right through it all.
“Aquarius” is an observant and compelling film. It’s a film that cares about its characters, both the humans and the locations, and goes to great lengths to effortlessly show us. Rich and soulful in its music and art and its visuals, it is one of the best films of the year, featuring clearly one of the best performances of the year from an actress.