Francisco Fontes reviews Aquarius, by up and coming Brazilian writer and director, Kleber Mendonça Filho, at the New York Film Festival. It opens tomorrow (10/14/16).
It’s been close to a decade since a Brazilian film had as much coverage in the media as Aquarius did since its premiere at Cannes in May. And while some of that attention is deserved, as it’s due to the sheer force of the film, most of the reasons behind its lingering place in both Brazilian and foreign outlets had to do with the controversies that arose after its cast and crew’s protest against the impeachment of then-president Dilma Rousseff during the premiere. Since then the film has become a platform for political discussion that lead to its overall disqualification as Brazil’s Oscar contender.
The discussion has not ceased and its New York Premiere had its own protest. What started as a handful of protesters quietly holding signs during the Q&A became a full on demonstration of the audience’s (mostly composed of Brazilians) feelings of disappointment towards Brazil’s current position, as security staff escorted the protesters outside. It is a valid dialogue that deserves the spotlight, but my role here is to talk about the film, so I shall refrain from any political position.
Aquarius tells the story of Clara, a cancer survivor, mother of three, widow, music lover, with solid beliefs and a strong sense of who she is and what she represents. She is the last resident of a building (named Aquarius) that is slowly but surely being surrounded by expensive high-rises, that seem to look down at her house like imposing giants. But Clara is a giant herself. In an early shot – a split diopter shot that would make Brian De Palma proud – we see Clara lying down in her living room, taking almost the entire frame, and Diego (who is responsible for the project that plans to bring Aquarius down in order to build more high-rises) approaching from outside her window. In comparison to her, he is minuscule – a devil sitting on her shoulder, with a hateful smirk.
Clara has a hard time trying to convince everyone (including her kids) that she will only leave the building over her dead body, but the keys might already be in someone else’s hands, and the company that owns all other apartments in the building will do its best to force her out of there. What ensues is a power play, a war of sorts. They throw parties right above her apartment, she paints the whole building, making it her own. She tries to prove that she belongs there and has every right to stay in her refuge, but as a later scene shows, not even your deathbed might be safe and eternal. The “powerful” might act like vermin, destroying everything that is sacred from within, slowly rotting what once was beautiful.
The film is also about memory – not only those that are related to our lives, but all the accumulated memories that lie within each physical object we own. Everything has a value, a story of itself, a message in a bottle. The film starts with one of these memories, with a birthday party for Lucia, Clara’s aunt. While Lucia hears her family recount stories of her life, she recalls a past romance, brought back into her brain by a desk in the corner – much like Proust’s madeleine. And Aquarius, now close to abandoned, must hold countless memories like those, dating further and further into the past – the old and the new still living in harmony. Clara is fighting to keep her place, but also to keep these memories intact.
Kleber Mendonça Filho’s second feature brings back some of the themes of his tremendous first work Neighboring Sounds, but moves many steps beyond, delivering an extremely tight (though slightly long) and very well directed follow up. Sonia Braga, in a performance that deserves all the attention it’s been getting, makes Clara come to life in what is surely her best work ever. In many ways she carries the movie on her shoulders, and her intensity keep us glued to screen. With talent like that, and by telling the right story at the right time, Kleber brought back to life the respect that Brazilian cinema deserves, and awakened in its audience (or at least part of it) the understanding that art can serve many purposes.