Aquarius (Cert 18)
1 Disc (Distributor: Arrow Video) Running Time: 146 minutes approx.
Former documentary maker Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius isn’t too far removed from his incisive debut Neighbouring Sounds thematically yet manages to tell a different story all the same. The importance of family and community is again a central concern but the added political commentary served to potentially derail the film’s success.
Which is ironic given the plot – 65 year-old widow and retired music critic Clara (Sonia Braga) wants to remain living in her family’s apartment in the seaside locale of Boa Viagem Avenue, Recife. As the last remaining tenant in an otherwise empty building, a construction company wanting to demolish and modernise it makes Clara a handsome offer to move out, which she refuses.
Despite being a respected figure in the area, known affectionately as “Dona Clara”, the construction company, fronted by American educated Diego (Humberto Carrão), uses some underhanded tactics in an attempt to force Clara out of the building. As a survivor of cancer 35 years earlier and too many memories invested in the apartment, Clara is not about to give up the fight now.
Released at a time when the political landscape in Brazil was in complete turmoil, Filho and his cast used the film’s Cannes premiere to support the then impeached President of Brazil. This led to supporters of the impeachment to call for a boycott of the film which was used in the subsequent publicity for it in Brazil and helped its box office cause, and earned standing ovations at domestic festivals.
To our eyes however, the film doesn’t appear to that scathing and doesn’t pack the same gut punch as say I, Daniel Blake in terms of holding a mirror up to social injustices in such defiant and damning manner. Perhaps Brazilians are more sensitive about this sort of thing, but with films like City Of God or Elite Squad having challenged social issues without censure, maybe this was just a question of timing.
However, Aquarius still has a lot to say about corporate greed and respect for our elders, told though a story that is hardly original but is potent enough to resonate with many viewers. It is ultimately a tale of conflicting generations but the lines are not so black and white that Clara is an anachronistic luddite clinging to the past – along with walls of vinyl albums, she has cassettes, CDs and MP3s too.
She has lived and moved with the times but sill cherishes the past and is the living embodiment of the old maxim “Home is where the heart is”. The film opens in 1980 when Clara (Bárbara Colen) hosts a 70th birthday party for her Aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez) in the same apartment, already home to a chest of drawers that Lucia has fond (erotic) memories of from her youth.
Having lost her husband, seen her kids move out and her journalism career flourish, the apartment is everything to Clara and she wants to die there. Perhaps she is being unreasonable in lieu of everyone else having moved out (presumably having been bought out) and she is stopping progress that will create jobs and benefit the community but Clara’s view is that respect for family roots is missing.
Again, this is ironic as Diego is the grandson of the company’s director, and as we learn later in the film, Clara is stitched up by a lot of people all from the same family. As resolute as Clara is, even her kids think she should take the offer, her daughter Ana Paula (Maeve Jinkings) thinking purely in money terms not appreciating the sentimental value of the apartment to her mother.
Perhaps where Filho is being most ingenious is in avoiding two clichés beholden to this storyline – making Clara weak and sympathetic and piling on the pity, and turning this into a Home Alone style comedy of one-upmanship. Actually, there is a little bit of the latter but what you may expect – Diego lets rooms out for parties and orgies to disturb Clara so she cranks up some Queen then calls a gigolo for some action!
Running close to two and half hours, there is a lot of meandering that could have been excised mostly based around Clara’s social life with her aged friends, along with a shorter build up of her character which takes up most of the first hour. There are times where Filho labours certain points by repeating the scenario of Clara having to justify her stance to her daughter, a message we got first time round.
There has been some debate over the ending, a rather obtuse conclusion that could be seen as a little contrived in contrast to the way Clara has kept her nerve throughout. If it was meant to end on a positive note “Stick it to the man” style then I personally enjoyed it for that very reason.
Clearly having a lot to say and keen to say it, Filho again relies on documentary style camerawork, a handheld camera following the cast about, both intrusively close and at a stalking distance. This creates a sense of naturalism to make the scenario feel real and relatable to audiences but Filho is also able to construct and compose some fabulous looking shots too.
I must confess to not being familiar with Sonia Braga despite her prolific career but her turn as Clara is commanding powerhouse performance. With her long mane of black hair Clara is a woman who doesn’t recognise her age yet doesn’t delude herself into thinking she is young anymore. Braga plays her with a quiet dignity, poise and grace yet full of Latino fire and verve when necessary.
Disputes over the long run time will be subjective but Braga’s superlative performance and Filho’s bold and challenging vision are not open to debate. The quietly captivating nature of Aquarius shows what an important voice Filho is in world cinema, if he can continue to deliver such treats for discerning film buffs.
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Three Short Films
Rating – ****
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