Film Review: ‘Aquarius’

The incomparable Sonia Braga stars as a well-off widow holding on to her apartment against developer pressures in this shrewd meditation on the way physical space elides with our identity.

Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Irandhir Santos, Humberto Carrão, Zoraide Coleto, Fernando Teixeira, Buda Lira, Paula De Renor, Bárbara Colen, Daniel Porpino, Pedro Queiroz, Carla Ribas, Germano Melo, Julia Bernat, Thaia Perez, Arly Arnaud, Leo Wainer, Lula Terra, Allan Souza Lima, Valdeci Junior. (Portuguese dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5221584/

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Aquarius'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 17, 2016. Running time: 145 MIN.

Production: (Brazil-France) An SBS Distribution (in France) release of a CinemaScópio, SBS Films, Videofilmes, Globo Filmes production. (International sales: SBS International, Paris.) Co-producer, Walter Salles. Executive producer, Dora Amorim.

Crew: Directed, written by Kleber Mendonça Filho. Camera (color, widescreen), Pedro Sotero, Fabricio Tadeu; editor, Eduardo Serrano; production designers, Juliano Dornelles, Thales Junqueira; art director, Tyaga Sà; costume designer, Rita Azevedo; sound, Nicolas Hallet, Ricardo Cutz; associate producer, Carlos Diegues; 1st assistant director, Milena Times.

With: Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Irandhir Santos, Humberto Carrão, Zoraide Coleto, Fernando Teixeira, Buda Lira, Paula De Renor, Bárbara Colen, Daniel Porpino, Pedro Queiroz, Carla Ribas, Germano Melo, Julia Bernat, Thaia Perez, Arly Arnaud, Leo Wainer, Lula Terra, Allan Souza Lima, Valdeci Junior. (Portuguese dialogue)

More Film

  • Aaron Janus Lionsgate

    Lionsgate Hires 'A Quiet Place' Producer Aaron Janus as Senior VP of Production

    Lionsgate has hired Aaron Janus as its new senior vice president of production and promoted Meredith Wieck to the post of vice president of production.  Prior to Lionsgate, Janus served as Platinum Dunes’ head of development, where he oversaw filmmakers Brad Fuller, Andrew Form and Michael Bane. There, he brought in “A Quiet Place,” on [...]

  • Ang Lee Reveals First Look at

    Ang Lee on 'Gemini Man' and De-Aging Will Smith

    On paper, Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” is a standard-issue, shoot ’em up with Will Smith playing a deadly assassin who must battle a younger clone of himself. The explosions and gun battles aren’t what drew Lee to the project, even if they’re the reason that most people will show up at theaters when it opens [...]

  • Hopper Reserve

    Dennis Hopper's Dying Wish: His Own Strain of Marijuana

    Even as celebrity brands are starting to flood the emerging Cannabis market, Hopper Reserve stands out. The brand was launched by Marin Hopper, Dennis Hopper’s daughter from his marriage to Brooke Hayward. Hopper Reserve is a gram of California indoor-grown flower, two packs of rolling papers, a pair of matches and a trading card either [...]

  • Sean Clarke Aardman Staff Photography Bristol.Pic

    Aardman Appoints Sean Clarke as New Managing Director

    Aardman, the Oscar-winning animation studio behind “Chicken Run” and “Early Man,” has appointed Sean Clarke as its new managing director, replacing co-founder David Sproxton, who is stepping down after 43 years. Clarke has worked at the British studio for more than 20 years, including heading the international rights and marketing department for over a decade. [...]

  • The Antenna

    Toronto Film Review: 'The Antenna'

    Jump scares, creepy noises and the tease of hidden-from-view dangers are all fine. But a truly frightening horror film unsettles with more than its crafts, but instead through the vulnerability of defenseless people stuck with bad options only. First-time writer-director Orçun Behram’s highly stylized and mildly disturbing “The Antenna,” a metaphor on Turkey’s current ruling [...]

  • Ad Astra Box Office

    Box Office Battle: 'Ad Astra' Takes on 'Rambo: Last Blood' and 'Downton Abbey'

    “Hustlers” and “Good Boys” proved that even in the age of Marvel dominance and remake mania, movies that don’t exist within an established franchise can still be box office draws. Can “Ad Astra” continue that trend? The space drama — starring Brad Pitt and directed by James Gray — arrives on the big screen this [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein Accuser Lucia Evans Breaks

    Harvey Weinstein Accuser Lucia Evans Breaks Silence After D.A. Dropped Charge

    Lucia Evans gave a wrenching account on Tuesday of her efforts to hold Harvey Weinstein responsible for sexual assault, saying she felt betrayed after the Manhattan D.A.’s office dropped her allegations last year. Evans spoke to Variety after giving a speech at a conference on influencer fraud in Manhattan, making her first public comments on [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content