Oscars: Controversy Erupts Over Brazilian Film ‘Aquarius’

Oscars: Controversy Erupts Over Brazilian Film
Courtesy of Maria Laura Antonelli / AGF/REX/Shutterstock

At the Cannes Film Festival in May, filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho and the cast and crew of his film “Aquarius” staged a protest against the suspension of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. They held signs reading “Brazil is experiencing a coup d’etat” and “54,501,118 votes set on fire!”

Now, according to Mendonça and his supporters, the country’s interim government is making them pay for it.

“Join all the dots,” Mendonça told Variety in an interview. “There’s a lot of talk about the possibility of the film being sabotaged by the illegitimate government.”

Earlier this week, “Aquarius” — set for release Sept. 1 in Brazil — received an 18+ rating from the country’s Ministry of Justice for “explicit sex” and “drugs.” However, many believe it’s too harsh a classification and is merely an attempt to damage the film’s commercial prospects in retaliation for the protest.

The 18+ rating is extremely rare in Brazil. Most films get a 16+ rating, which is what “Aquarius” should have received, Mendonça said. The movie’s distributor appealed the rating but was denied.

Meanwhile, other filmmakers are crying foul over the appointment of critic Marcos Petrucelli to the special selection committee in charge of choosing the country’s submission for this year’s foreign-language Oscar race. Given remarks Petrucelli has made about Mendonça’s politics, they view it as a conflict of interest and an attempt to keep “Aquarius” from potentially representing Brazil at the 89th annual Academy Awards in February.

Petrucelli took to Facebook with his feelings of the Cannes protest on May 17: “Shame is the least I can say about the team and the cast of ‘Aquarius,'” he wrote. Five days later he posted: “So it was like this: A movie made with public money goes to Cannes to represent Brazil and does not win any awards. Therefore, the lie about the alleged coup d’etat in the country through sentences on pieces of paper on the red carpet did not do anything but ridicule Brazil.”

Mendonça felt those statements, as well as an insinuation that he and his team used public funds “to take a vacation in the French Riviera,” crossed the line.

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“If he said, ‘I disagree with the film,’ that would be perfectly fine,” the director said. “But he said we went to Cannes on holiday, got paid by the government. It’s wild and crazy … As far as I know, all the others [on the committee] are filmmakers and professionals.”

Petrucelli did not immediately respond to request for comment.

On Wednesday, two Brazilian films withdrew from the Oscar submission process in protest to Petrucelli’s appointment: Gabriel Mascaro’s “Neon Bull” and Anna Muylaert’s “Don’t Call Me Son.” Muylaert’s previous film, “The Second Mother,” was Brazil’s Oscar submission last year, and she was also invited to join the Academy this year as part of a vast new membership outreach that leaned heavily on international names.

A third film, Aly Muritiba’s “Para Minha Amada Morta,” joined them in bowing out on Friday.

“We have nothing against [Petrucelli’s] political opinions, which he has every right to express freely,” “Neon Bull” producer Rachel Ellis told Variety in an email. “But given the inappropriate manner in which he expressed these opinions, we feel it was highly inappropriate for him to then be selected as a committee member. Despite protests over the last few weeks, the Ministry of Culture continues to defend his place on the committee. This made us feel incredibly uncomfortable about participating in the selection process, as it undermined the impartiality and legitimacy of the process at a very delicate time in Brazilian politics.”

In an email, Muylaert told Variety she thinks there is a “subtle conspiracy” against the film. “As I believe ‘Aquarius’ is the right entry for Brazil this year, I decided not to submit my film in order to make [Mendonça’s] film even stronger,” she said.

Meanwhile, actress Ingra Liberato and director Guilherme Fiúza Zenha have resigned from the selection committee. Zenha merely cited “personal issues” and refused to comment on the matter with local media.

Other filmmakers, such as “Nise: The Heart of Madness” director Roberto Berliner, have said it’s better to protest within the system. “I am sympathetic to Kleber,” Berliner told Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo. “We have the same political views. But I think we filmmakers should unite against the appointment [of Petrucelli], and not remove the films.”

If indeed “Aquarius” is blocked from being submitted for the foreign-language Oscar, Mendonça and company could have the last laugh elsewhere on the Academy’s ballot. Actress Sonia Braga’s performance was raved in Cannes, leading many to count her as a strong leading actress possibility.

Vitagraph Films will release “Aquarius” in the U.S. on Oct. 14, after it screens at the upcoming Toronto and New York film festivals. Netflix has the VOD rights.

In the meantime, Mendonça is attempting to view the controversy in a positive light, as it can only raise awareness for the film and boost its profile. Nevertheless, he said he’ll be writing a “very democratic letter” to the Ministry of Justice demanding explanation for the 18+ rating.

There was no such problem with his previous film, “Neighboring Sounds.” And “Aquarius” is not about politics, but rather, about a woman (Braga) who refuses to vacate her apartment as gentrifying developers gobble up all of the units surrounding her. She stands her ground and fights the system … not unlike Mendonça.

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  1. Júlio F. N. Toito says:

    Oh, it definitely deserved that 18+ rating. Loads of really explicit nudity.

  2. Tomas Agusto Vergara says:

    No Government or Entity has the right to curtail any artistic or political expression! We all have the right to speak our minds or rebukes and debunks!

  3. Camila says:

    Wow! This comment section is full of people expressing their political views and forgetting about the movie itself. I disagree with what he did at Cannes, but he is an amazing director, I’ve been a fan since of his work since his short films (Recife Frio is awesome) and his first feature film was in the New York Time list of best movies of the year. I have high hopes for Aquarius. I don’t mind his political views. I want to judge the art. He had every right as a filmmaker to receive funds from the government. And his movies are something Brazil should be proud of. I hope all this controversy ends up helping the film with its Oscar buzz and getting nominated in other categories. But I would love to see it win best foreign film, if it deserves, I haven’t seen it yet, can’t say it does.

  4. Vitorino says:

    Those fuckers that produced aquarius took money from a corrupt goverment to lie about it and support corrupt Dilma Rousseff. Now that all of Dilma’s crime have been uncovered and she is being judged by her crimes, they are afraid to go to jail along with her and loose all the money they received to support the corruption of president Dilma and her party. They are a bunch of liars! There is no controversy!

  5. Snaro says:

    FORA DILMA!!! FORA PT!!! FORA PSOL!!! FORA REDE SUSTENTABILIDADE!!! FORA COMUNISTAS!!!

  6. A says:

    Now a short story of my comment below.

    Artists were heavily funded by the previous government, which financed movies, theater plays and music shows. These were not the unknown or poor artists. Actually the best known the artist, most likely was he to be approved for funds of course. The purpose was to align opinion makers.

    Now the new government is cutting funds to artists, which is the right thing to do in a country where people die because state funded hospitals are broken, and artists are angry. They want to live on taxpayers money, not tickets.

  7. Adriano Silva says:

    People outside Brazil. You were fooled by Lula. What is happening in Brazil is very simple and it can be explained.

    Lula was a very popular man and politician. His party distributed money to the poor, thus claiming they were no longer poor. That was helpful in making people able to eat of course but also a tactic of Lula’s party to “buy” votes from the poor. Those people were given that money and nothing else. They did not learn to do a job in order for them to keep depending on the money distributed by Lula’s party.

    Lula party is a comunist party. Their tactics on other topics are very similar to Russia’s Putin tactics, but much more subtle. They tried to censor people contrary to them, but we’re stopped short of doing that by other parties. However, as they were head of state and maker or all policies, they acted more subtly. Lula’s political party financed artists and other opinion makers and diminished financing for artists not aligned to them. That had double effect: it reduced contrary opinions and made artists align politically with them.

    Now those artists are obviously against the substitute government, which already said will reduce government funding of arts.

    You may see people in comments defending Lula’s and Dilma and against Temer (Lula’s sucessor vice presidente which is the substitute president), but that is not what we mostly see in Brazil. In Brazil Lula is only defended by extreme left (leftier than Bernie Sanders) and people that profit from government (public sector employees, people that receive money from government, etc).

    To finish this story, why that is happening now in Brazil? Lula, although from a communist party was never himself a communist, but a syndicate president, which was aligned with the communist party interests in big government and other areas. So his government was mostly a center or even right winged in the economic area as Lula new that would foster economic prosperity. After two terms he indicated a person then unknown to succeed him, much like what was done in Venezuela. This was someone loyal to him. However, that person was a true communist at heart and reversed economy direction by adopting leftist ideals (very big government, price fixing, etc). The effect is that this destroyed the economy in 4 years flat. Brazil now is in the middle of a gigantic economic crisis, greater than 1930s.

  8. Daniela Ribeiro says:

    This illegitimate government is such a shame for Brazil. In two months in office as an interim for this setup of an impeachment process, they dismantled key structures that implemented cultural, social and scientific policies. People work and struggle to make beautiful films, and all this work is nothing to them because they have no appreciation whatsoever for art and culture. They took the country by assault. Democracy is gone from Brazil. #FORATEMER.

    • Darci Buarque says:

      Daniela Ribeiro, unfortunately for you, you people who voted for Dilma voted for Temer as well. You knew this when Dilma made Temer her vice-president. You could protest at that time, but you preferred to stay quiet and let him gain power. So don’t cry now, think better the next time.

  9. fulecofulero says:

    #tchauquerida #choramortadelas #comunismkills

    • Darci Buarque says:

      Daniela Ribeiro, unfortunately for you, you people who voted for Dilma voted for Termer as well. You knew this when Dilma made Temer her vice-president. You could protest at that time, but you preferred to stay quiet and let him gain power. So don’t cry now, think better the next time.

  10. #StopCoupinBrazil #GoToHellTermer #CensuraNuncaMais

  11. Louise says:

    Things are really weird in Brazil at the moment. What’s happening with this movie is actually serious, the subtle punishment that it’s receiving by the government can be associated to censorship (!) and whatever your political view is, censorship is always bad and dangerous, and one day they are only punishing a lefty filmmaker, the other any different point of view…

  12. Pedro Ferreira Dantas says:

    #StopCoupinBrazil #ComeBackDilma

  13. Carol says:

    #FORATEMER

  14. Felipe says:

    Are actors who live on handouts of the State and are afraid of losing their stewardship. Sônia Braga lived years outside of Brazil and now forgotten u.s. productions, back to trying to grab a tit. The Brazil is experiencing a new era of hope. Goodbye Dilma!

    • Riccardo says:

      That’s it Felipe. Acquarius’ and ancine gang in Cannes made me feel ashamed of being a Brazilian filmmaker.

      • Norma Desmond. says:

        Exactly. What a bunch of attention-whoring hypocrites Kleber, Sonia, and their team are. Bourgeois kings and queens supporting a corruption system that’ll take a long time to dismantle. Meanwhile, they’ll use this controversy hoping to get some Academy Award attention – since Cannes left them empty-handed. Glamour and awards is what they’re really after.

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