Clara, a 65 year old widow and retired music critic, was born into a wealthy and traditional family in Recife, Brazil. She is the last resident of the Aquarius, an original two-story building, built in the 1940s, in the upper-class, seaside Boa Viagem Avenue, Recife. All the neighboring apartments have already been acquired by a company which has other plans for that plot.
Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Writer: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Stars: Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Irandhir Santos
Subtitled in English
We often think of memories as fluid, intangible things, written on water, pouring through our minds like sieves. But in Aquarius, the new film from Brazil’s Kleber Mendonça Filho, they’re one and the same as the graspable objects around us: the buildings we live in, the books and records that line our shelves, the photograph albums tucked beneath our beds.
Take the cabinet that catches the eye of Lucia (Thaia Perez) on her 70th birthday, in Aquarius’s 1980-set prologue, which unfolds in a tactile Polaroid glow. While Lucia’s grandchildren recite a sweet speech, the sight of it snaps her back to an ecstatic sexual encounter of her youth – she perched naked on top, her now-dead husband kneeling at its base, head buried between her thighs.
A family heirloom, the cabinet now belongs to Lucia’s niece Clara, but its continued existence makes it a kind of emotional archive – and filed away within is the curative power of a moment long-passed. When a thing disappears, its past goes with it for good.
That’s the intricate but wholly persuasive thesis of Filho’s magnificent second feature, which spins a straightforward social justice yarn into an engrossing disquisition on the value of the past in a present determined to sweep it away. Its plot centres on Clara (Sonia Braga), a retired music critic whose beachside apartment block, called Aquarius, is being eyed by a grasping property developer for demolition, to make way for another sky-scraping complex.
Clara’s neighbours have all either moved on or given up: she’s the final holdout, and the developer’s unctuous grandson (Humberto Carrão) is working an aggressive charm offensive – charming at first, anyway – to persuade her to move out. But for Clara, money isn’t the point. This is her home, where she raised her three children, recovered from breast cancer and a mastectomy, listened to records for work and play.
In one terrific scene, while the developers stage a deafening party in the apartment above as a nonphysical way of encroaching on her personal space, she puts on Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls at full volume – and for three and a half euphoric minutes, the place is hers again.
Like Mendonça Filho’s 2012 debut feature, Neighbouring Sounds, Aquarius is set in his home city of Recife, and is likewise the story of a particular geographical area as much as it is a straightforward character study. The film’s lucid sense of place and space, helped along by the camera’s eye for sensual visual detail and sound design to make your eardrums groan in delight, is one of the film’s most generous pleasures.
While Clara’s ongoing battle with the developers continues to scale new heights of passive-aggressive drama, it doesn’t ever drown out the neighbourhood still ticking away in the background – like the lifeguard (Irandhir Santos) on the beach across the road with whom she amiably flirts in the mornings, and the friends whose enthusiasm for a local gigolo will later blazingly reignite Clara’s long-stalled love-life.
Braga has been presented with an uncommonly dense and multi-faceted role here, and she plunges into it with a kind of glossy-maned, leonine majesty, investing the character with a hard-won dignity that often has you stifling a cheer, but also exploring her flaws in gripping fashion.
The complexities of Brazilian society, with its different social and racial strata and importance of family ties, becomes a quivering spiderweb for both Clara and the plot to pick their way through: by the film’s end, you’ll be blissfully tangled up in both, with no wish to break free.
-Robbie Collin, The Telegraph