Aquarius (2016)

Aquarius is Kleber Mendonça Filho’s unhurried portrait of a fascinatingly complicated woman, meticulously characterised in a career-best performance by Sonia Braga.

The Apartment

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Sonia Braga is luminous as Clara, a beautiful 65-year-old widow, a retired music journalist, who lives alone in a spacious, bohemian apartment in the Art Deco Aquarius building – an attractive sprawling low-rise block of faded elegance. It’s also a prime piece of real estate right across the promenade from the Boa Viagem beach in Recife. Developers have made offers they couldn’t refuse to all the other residents, who’ve sold up, and now Clara is the only one left and she’s stubbornly refusing to budge.

We see in flashbacks that over many years Clara’s home has been the fount of happy family memories and life-affirming get-togethers. The baton of independent feminism was passed on to her by an elderly relative, young Clara overcame breast cancer, her son and daughter grew up there, her grandson and his girlfriend visit, and small things have become treasured as precious objects. She herself is a local character well-known for her grace and charm as well as her intransigence. We see this from her interactions with workmen and her conversations with the beach’s sympathetic lifeguard (Irandhir Santos), whose station is opposite her flat – all respectfully call her Dona Clara. She has a close relationship with her housekeeper and friend of many years (Zoraide Coleto), though this also serves to show the gulf between Clara’s life of privilege and the working class community where she lives further along the beach – separated from the luxury end by a sewer pipe.

The Aquarius building pervades the film as a symbol of an old order that’s threatened by crass commercialism and corruption. Though this might also apply to Clara herself, it’s only her moral stance that’s out of kilter with modern times – she’s a computer-savvy, still-sexual being. The Aquarius’s owner and his falsely smiling Gordon Gecko grandson (Humberto Carrão), who’s taken over the redevelopment project, want to pull it down and build an ugly modern block of flats, like the others that have sprouted up around it, despoiling the laid-back coastal skyline. To pressurise Clara to go, they try to make her life unbearable by moving in noisy neighbours, leaving excrement on the stairs and, when this makes her even more determined – so much so that she symbolically pays for the building to be repainted – resorting to illegal tactics.

Braga is fearless in her portrayal of Clara and mesmerising as the film meanders. Though director Kleber Mendonça Filho, whose previous films have won awards in Brazil, takes the luxury of time to create a rounded portrait of the life of a fascinating mature woman in all her complexity, Aquarius does seem overextended at times, the flashbacks can seem unclear and it ends abruptly. But overall it’s a rare, intelligent grown-up treat to indulge yourself with. And who wouldn’t want to live next to that wide Brazilian beach?

Aquarius premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is released on 24 March 2017 in the UK.

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