Aquarius, a new film by Brazilian writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho, wants to make us comfortable before we enter its main story. In a prologue from 1980, a group of friends, slightly tipsy, laugh and play music while driving a car on the sand along the sea shore. Among them is the beautiful Clara, played by Barbara Colen, who leads them to her beachfront apartment to enjoy a birthday party for one of her aunts. Among the revelers are her husband and three young children, and a host of others, friends and extended family. We learn that Clara has recently survived cancer, and more importantly we experience the joyful communal feeling of this family and this house. We also get a taste of the film’s affirmation of honesty and naturalness. While the aunt is being toasted at length by smiling family members, we are allowed to see her inward reveries recalling sex play with her now deceased husband when they were much younger. The importance of objects in people’s homes is accented by her glance to a beautiful old wooden cabinet in the room. These are notes that are going to be played later in the film.
Having established the theme of home and memory, the film now cuts to the present. Clara, now played by Sonia Braga, is a widow, living alone in the apartment, still vibrant and sociable and fond of pleasure. The director lets us follow this complex woman, now in her 60s, through her daily life, for example in a nightclub scene with her friends that is perhaps the most perfectly realized depiction of such an outing I’ve ever seen. But then, trouble intrudes. The company that runs the apartment building, a tenant-owned enterprise called The Aquarius, wants to demolish it and build on a much bigger and more lucrative scale. Everyone else in the building agrees to sell. But Clara won’t even consider it. This is where she raised her kids, where her husband died, and this is where she wants to die. The proprietors, an elderly gentleman and his ambitious grandson, who try to discuss this with Clara, are not villainous types. They are very nice and polite and they smile a lot. Clara doesn’t care. Soon the company starts to make subtle but intimidating efforts, including some very weird mind games, in order to force her out.
This struggle between this one colorful individual, a sometimes difficult but always interesting and many-faceted woman, and a greedy and insensitive corporation, comes and goes like waves throughout the movie, while in the meantime we experience her relationships with her grown children, a nephew, her housekeeper, a young lifeguard friend, and even a professional she pays for sex when she gets tired of the work involved in dating. It’s all woven together masterfully in a way that feels completely lived-in, vibrant and authentic.
Sonia Braga, arguably Brazil’s biggest star, after almost five decades and scores of leading roles, once again demonstrates that there is seemingly no limit to her talent. This is one of the greatest performances of recent years. The beauty of the performance is its intense individuality.
And in the unmistakably political undertones of the film, Clara stands for art, intelligence, honesty and lack of phoniness, ownership of one’s own life and body, and the freedom to be oneself. All this in contrast to the dull, crass quest for profit at all cost on the part of the real estate company, and by extension, the social and political order we face today. Aquarius covers all this ground, from the minutely personal to the broadest social implications you can imagine, anchored in the experiences and lives of real people.
Aquarius played here for one night during one of the film festivals last year. I finally got to see it the other day, streaming on Netflix, and it should soon be available on DVD. I believe I’ve found my favorite film of 2016.