#NYFF 2016: Aquarius


Aquarius plays on October 9 and October 11 as part of the main slate of the 54th New York Film Festival. Vitagraph Films will release the movie in New York on October 14th. Follow our coverage of NYFF 2016 here.

Brazilian drama Aquarius arrives in New York a flashpoint of political controversy. Back in May director Kleber Mendonça Filho and his production team used the film’s Cannes screening to protest the impeachment of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff as a “coup d’état.” In retaliation, Aquarius’s home country withdrew it from possible representation in the Best Foreign Film category at the upcoming Academy Awards. (The barely risqué film was also slapped with Brazil’s version of the NC-17 rating in order to dampen its box office prospects.) This should come as no surprise considering the film’s incisive look at contemporary Brazilian society. But Aquarius is anything but a dry treatise: anchoring its social critique is a moving portrait of an aging woman’s resilient fight for self-sufficiency.

The story revolves around Clara (Sonia Braga), a breast cancer survivor and widow in her mid-60s. A retired music critic who still listens to vinyl, Clara honors tradition and memory by remaining in Aquarius, the Recife apartment that’s been in the family for almost a century. This is significant because all of her neighbors have moved out at the behest of (and with promised monetary compensation from) developers who plan to raze the building to construct a fancy condominium. A passive-aggressive battle ensues between Clara and the head developer’s cutthroat son Diego (Humberto Carrão): at one point he rents the upstairs apartment to an orgy, the participants of which defecate in the stairwell. Eventually even Clara’s children try to convince her to see reason and accept the developers’ offer.

Mendonça focuses as much on the apartment as on Clara—indeed, they are inextricably intertwined. When Clara hears the orgy’s attendant sounds, Mendonça charts her loneliness, frustration, curiosity, and arousal as she paces the apartment, attempts to distract herself (by playing and singing along to “Fat Bottomed Girls”), and glowers at a cigarette littering her balcony. Indeed, the imminent destruction of Clara’s private sanctuary is both a political and psychological act. Virtually powerless against Diego’s strong-arm tactics (representative of Brazil’s ongoing gentrification), Clara reclaims agency by making love on her couch to a “professional” younger man recommended to her by another widowed friend. Aquarius’ depiction of the sexual desire of an older woman—proud of her youthfulness yet self-conscious of her mastectomy—dares more than “got-her-groove-back” celebration.

Mendonça also refuses to depict Clara as a saintly victim. At various points her resistance verges on selfishness: former neighbors, after all, are awaiting buyout money pending Clara’s capitulation, while her stubborn refusal to heed advice conjures painful memories of her negligence as a young mother. Moreover, Clara is the product of privilege. In one terrific scene Clara, her siblings, and her children reminisce over family photographs. Suddenly Clara’s maid Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto) displays a photo of her son, who was recently killed by a motorist. This man, we earlier learned, was never held responsible for manslaughter, and the implication is that because Ladjane is poor she could not properly access the justice system. Clara and clan’s responding silence to Ladjane’s tragic show-and-tell expresses their collective embarrassment of riches.

I’ve highlighted a couple of key moments—as a whole Aquarius works as a subtle accumulation of such moments in Clara’s interactions with friends, family, and surroundings, and in this sense Braga’s soulful performance carries the day. Once in a while Mendonça lets the pace drag or else makes his points in a manner more sociological than dramatic (Diego’s corrupt political connections are spoken of yet never demonstrated), but in the end he has made a rich, resonant, and relevant film.

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