Review by John Bennett (@johnbennett812)
Directed by: Kleber Mendonca Filho
Starring: Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Irandhir Santos
Just as Aquarius is and isn’t a plot-driven film at the same time, it’s a political and apolitical film at the same time. It’s a film by a man who’s mad at the Brazilian political climate, and who’s also interested in simply recording a Brazilian way of life.
At the beginning of Aquarius, Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s wonderful new film, a septuagenarian aunt looks longingly at a plain wood credenza during her birthday party. As her young nieces and nephews fumble through birthday tributes, Aunt Lucia’s gaze wanders to the piece of furniture, and it revives fond, wistful memories of an erotic encounter she had years ago. When the film returns to the present, Clara (Sonia Braga), now past middle age herself, looks just as wistfully at the wooden piece of furniture - and it’s then we understand it has magically become a cherished totem of multi-generational memories. For Clara, the film’s exquisitely drawn main character, being able to savour life’s pleasurable moments in this melancholy yet peaceful way means everything. And because Clara is the driving force of the film, these moments mean everything for Aquarius as a whole; it’s a beautifully sensuous film with a strong and credible centre of moral gravity.
The lengthy 1980 prologue establishes some key points: we discover that Clara has recently recovered from a lengthy, life-threatening battle with cancer, and we see, through interactions with her husband, how this battle with cancer has deepened her appreciation of what’s important in life. Three-and-a-half decades later, when the film’s main narrative takes place, Clara lives a relaxed and happy lifestyle in the same apartment from the prologue in the beachside town of Recife, even though her husband has passed away some years earlier. She may be happy that she lives in the apartment, but certain real estate developers are not; one company owns all of the building’s units except for Clara’s. Before long, Clara is visited by Diego (Humberto Carrão), a young, ambitious executive with the company who smilingly tries to convince Clara to move out of her apartment so the company can have total control to develop the seaside building. Clara refuses. But then mysterious things begin happening around the building, and Clara soon feels the company is trying to intimidate her into moving out - rekindling her old ability to fight against vague yet potent threats.
Though Mendonça is an excellent stylist, Braga’s commanding performance as Clara gives Aquarius much of its power. Braga (best known for Hector Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman from 1985 - Babenco died earlier this year) gives such a solid performance that it’s almost thrilling. Through Braga’s ease and grace as a performer, Clara’s contentment with her life well-lived and well-fought-for anchor Aquarius in its ocean of relaxed warmth. Yet Braga colours this warmth with a streak of unease: Clara casts a suspicious eye not only on the developers, but also anyone who seems to breach her codes of morality and personal freedom. She turns as icy as ever when she discovers her own daughter has talked with the developers without her knowledge. In the film’s more climactic moments, Braga gives us satisfying drama without lapsing into histrionics. In one low-angle shot of Clara arguing with Diego just outside of her complex’s garage, Braga commands the frame with the clear-minded strategic anger of a boxer, and her jabs land with force. The talented actress is able to mold all of these disparate qualities into one brilliant, unforgettable superhero of everyday life.
The two sides of Clara - her relaxed joie-de-vivre and her furious obstinacy in the face of injustice - are the crux of the two movies that Mendonça skillfully weaves together to create Aquarius. On one hand, we see the liberated equivalent of Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman - Clara listens to music, drinks wine, does yoga, and goes out with friends. This minutiae draws us into Clara’s life, making us feel welcome and comfortable in her home - making it jarring for the audience and Clara alike when her happy existence in the apartment is challenged, prompting the film’s more traditional conflict-driven plot to kick into dramatic high gear. Still, even when Clara forcefully resists the contractors’ attempts at intimidation, Mendonça lets this narrative sit side-by-side with the more relaxed, aimless one. Generally, Aquarius succeeds in balancing these sensibilities, but sometimes they feel a little lopsided. I appreciate the unhurried pace of the film, but it occasionally seems like Mendonça has bitten off more than he can chew. The '80s-set intro, the scene in which Clara goes out with her friends to a singles bar, and the scene in which she goes to a party to commemorate the death of her maid’s son, all feel a little too long, each broaching a new idea or theme that seems slightly too detached from the film’s core. Aquarius conveys a marvelous expansiveness, but Mendonça should have kept a slightly tighter grip on the reins. Still, I’d rather sit through an ambitious film that misses some marks than one that’s staid and predictable. I think Clara would feel the same way.
At the Cannes premiere of Aquarius, Mendonça and much of his cast and crew proudly brandished signs that read: “A coup d’état took place in Brazil,” referring to the impeachment of Brazil’s relatively progressive president Dilma Rousseff. Given this very public and controversial way of protesting, it’s reasonable to ask if Aquarius functions as a political film. In a way, Clara’s resistance is conservative - she wants to live her life in her own simple way. Yet the film’s unmistakably clear stance on corporate greed places it in the tradition of liberal activist cinema. Mendonça uses Pier Paolo Pasolini’s and Jacques Tati’s brand of progressive politics - one that subtly yet firmly criticises the influence of consumerist power and values a lifestyle of simplicity and authenticity. But where Pasolini and Tati saw modern consumerism as an invading force, Mendonça sees it as something that rots a society from the inside out that needs to be actively resisted, a sentiment he expresses via the powerful symbols of Clara’s cancer and the film’s final shocking image (I won’t reveal it here, but it’s a real surprise and a perfect metaphor). Just as Aquarius is and isn’t a plot-driven film at the same time, it’s a political and apolitical film at the same time. It’s a film by a man who’s mad at the Brazilian political climate, and who’s also interested in simply recording a Brazilian way of life.
Mendonça deserves recognition for subtly experimenting with some basic film language: we’re so used to fade edits signifying a change in time and space, but Mendonça will fade from a shot of Clara's intent gaze to a shot of the towering condominium buildings she’s warily observing. A straight cut would have been straight forward, but the fade makes Clara’s contemplative observation of the building all the more sumptuous, all the more intense. More than once, Mendonça starts a shot with a tight close-up of a character that zooms out to show a breathtaking view of the Brazilian coastline and the massive towers that Diego must envy, letting us see Recife in all of its sunny glory and overbuilt ugliness. But the dual function of these shots embodies all the qualities that make Aquarius worth watching: it’s a Whitmanesque exercise in warm expansiveness, in engagement and detachment, in easy love and moral outrage.
Aquarius is in cinemas March 24th.