Kleber Mendonça Filho/ Brazil France/ 2016/ 140 mins
Available on Dual-Format Blu-ray/ DVD Mon 17 July 2017
The second film by film critic turned filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho demonstrates the eye of a portraitist and the brain of an architect. It gives Sonia Braga a starring role that comes along all-too-rarely towards the twilight of an actor’s career, and is both a languid character study and a rapier poke in the eye to the current Brazilian government.
Braga is Clara, a widow in her mid-sixties who is the sole resident of the Aquarius apartment block, right by the Atlantic in Recife. A retired music critic, she’s feted by the intellectual youth of her country, but is slightly hermetically sealed into her existence. Her apartment is the edifice of her life, her memories as multitudinous as her vinyl collection. It’s understandable therefore, that she is militantly resistant to the construction company that wishes to purchase her apartment and build a new complex on the site.
This framework ebbs in and out of the film. Filho is just as interested in establishing the rhythms of Clara’s life as her battles with the shady forces of capitalism. Braga is both charming and spiky in a multi-layered performance that is comparable to Isabelle Huppert’s imperious turn in Mia Hansen-Løve’s excellent Things to Come last year. There is perhaps more narrative drama in Aquarius, but both films simply allow a beautifully-written, strong and complex female protagonist to carry the weight of the audience’s attention. Things to Come is a more succinct piece of work perhaps – even Braga’s magnetism is strained by the extensive length; it’s a real double LP of a film – but Aquarius is a more overtly counter-cultural and politically conscious work.
Even those who remain ignorant of the film’s subtext will find much to enjoy in the filmmaker’s fascination with the spaces we inhabit and the impact they have on us. A prologue in which a young Clara attends her aunt’s 70th birthday in the same apartment is inter-cut with some frank sexual memories from her aunt’s youth, to startling and emotive effect. It is perhaps a superfluous opening but so effective in establishing the themes of memory and the pull that physical spaces and objects can exert on a person; the sheer joy of ephemera.
Aquarius may occasionally test the patience, much like the stubborn Doña Clara does to those around her, and there is an artificially triumphal edge to the conclusion that slightly undercuts its dedication to being open-ended, but this is a stunningly assured film with a central performance of amazing self-possession and gravitas from Sonia Braga. Other reviews which have compared her to Audrey Hepburn at the end of her career are not far from the mark. Enjoy the last days of the age of Aquarius.