Kleber Mendonça Filho’s stunning 2012 feature debut “Neighboring Sounds” boldly announced a major new voice in Brazilian cinema, someone able to capture the totality of Brazilian society in one Recife residential street via a remarkably sophisticated choral balancing act. His much-anticipated follow-up is a more subtle film but no less mature, a calmer film but no less angry. Starring the incomparable Sonia Braga as a well-off widow holding on to her apartment against developer pressures, “Aquarius” is a character study as well as a shrewd meditation on the needless transience of place and the way physical space elides with our identity. Festivals will clamor, though distributors unfortunately may feel wary about the lengthy running time.
The focus on one character, Clara, doesn’t hinder Mendonça Filho’s ability to again portray the varied strata of Brazilian society, where skin color remains a defining characteristic of social (and business) position and nepotism is the crucial path to advancement. However, in “Aquarius” the director-writer looks deeper at the residue of time and place, of how we invest our possessions with significance, and ultimately on the ways so-called modern business models wipe away at meaning when they tear down locations. Once again he also declares his mastery of space, paying crucial attention to the boundaries between exterior and interior, plus he’s a master of understanding how music is an even more powerful conjurer of mood and memory than the objects around us.
He divides the film in three chapters of varying lengths: Mendonça Filho takes as much time as he needs here, remaining true to his message by refusing to kowtow to the market. The first section is in 1980, opening with Clara (Bárbara Colen) in a car on the beach at night with family, popping in a cassette tape and satisfyingly blasting “Another One Bites the Dust.” They’re taking a brief respite from a 70th birthday party for her great-aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez) in a pink apartment building called Aquarius. It’s a convivial gathering, with Clara’s husband Adalberto (Daniel Porpino) toasting to Clara’s recent recovery from breast cancer.
As Lucia looks around the party, her eyes settle on a nondescript credenza, and in flashes, she silently recalls great sex decades earlier with her now-dead lover. It’s a beautiful moment, referred to later only by an occasional glimpse of that unremarkable credenza: we take comfort in our possessions not in a materialistic way, but because they trigger memories, they decorate our soul and no one can ever really share in that intimate conspiracy of the animate and inanimate.
With a seamless time shift Clara (Braga) is living in that pink building, now painted light blue. A writer and retired journalist with three grown children, she’s fiercely intelligent, very self-aware, and a bit lonely, but she has a good circle of friends and an excellent platonic though flirtatious rapport with Roberval (Irandhir Santos), the lifeguard on the beach across the street. She’s also the only person left in Aquarius: The other tenants accepted offers years ago from development company Bonfim.
Diego (Humberto Carrão), the company owner’s hotshot grandson back from the U.S. with a business degree, makes Clara a generous proposal, but she’s not interested: This is her home, and its décor as well as location are part of how she understands herself. Clara’s kids aren’t happy she’s alone in the building, and daughter Ana Paula (Maeve Jinkings) wants her mother to move, but she has no intention of going.
Clara isn’t some stubborn old lady with a screw loose — she’s a woman who’s comfortably made her life and doesn’t want to disrupt it for the ahistorical greed of a corporation. She also sees through Diego’s smarmy smile, but the coziness and security of home begins to be threatened when the company temporarily rents out one apartment for a loud orgy (which she drowns out by blasting “Fat Bottomed Girls”). Workmen appear, an evangelical church group suddenly fills the stairwell, and Clara feels increasingly uneasy the moment she steps outside her apartment door.
Clara’s restful hammock, strung next to the open window to take advantage of the beach sounds across the road, conveys her ease in her apartment, filled with her LPs and cassettes, her books and all the acquisitions of life, each representative of a particular moment. It’s not that she lives in the pas (she downloads mp3s without a problem), but she’s also not tossing it aside in favor of something that is often more hollow and ephemeral. As a woman she remains vitally engaged with the world around her, yet she also values the comforts of being surrounded by the life she chose.
If the film feels as much Braga’s as Mendonça Filho’s, it’s because the director has presented this gift to her (and to the viewer) on a silver platter. A breathtakingly intuitive actress, she’s beautifully aged into an aristocratically sensual physicality, and makes Clara’s firmness mingle with tenderness. The camera rarely leaves her, and we as audience value every moment we’re in her presence. Mendonça Filho is as attuned to his performers as he is to the space they inhabit, once again partnering with d.p.s Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu to explore the particularly Brazilian (perhaps particularly Recifian) interplay between exterior and interior. At times there’s an unnecessary use of zoom, over-directing attention to an object already on the radar, but overall the camerawork is handsomely calibrated to the themes.
So too the music, whose only fault is that the Portuguese songs aren’t subtitled. It’s a pity, because the element of time is a key player in many of the lyrics, such as the opening and closing song, “Hoje,” meaning “today.” Mendonça Filho understands that music is every bit as important to our sense of self as our environment, and whether Villa-Lobos or Queen, we becoming enriched by opening ourselves up to past and present rather than coldly directing ourselves only towards the future.