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.

“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.