Monday, January 16, 2017

Movie Review: Aquarius

Directed by: Kleber Mendonça Filho.   
Written by: Kleber Mendonça Filho.   
Starring: Sonia Braga (Clara), Maeve Jinkings (Ana Paula), Irandhir Santos (Roberval), Humberto Carrão (Diego), Zoraide Coleto (Ladjane), Fernando Teixeira (Geraldo Bonfim), Buda Lira (Antonio), Paula De Renor (Fátima), Barbara Colen (Clara em 1980), Daniel Porpino (Adalberto / Rodrigo), Pedro Queiroz (Tomás), Carla Ribas (Cleide), Germano Melo (Martin), Julia Bernat (Julia), Thaia Perez (Tia Lucia 1980). 
Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius is essentially a love letter to its star, Sonia Braga – the veteran Brazilian actress, who has carved out a successful career for herself, despite not getting a lot of truly great roles. Mendonça Filho clearly wants to change that, so he’s crafted this film all around Braga as Clara – a 65-year-old, widowed, recently retired music critic. She is the only resident left in her apartment building – the Aquarius – which has been bought by a powerful real estate developer, who wants to turn it all into high priced condos. But Clara doesn’t want to leave –and since she owns her apartment, they cannot really force her. But, they are going to try.
Aquarius is Mendonça Filho’s follow-up to his 2012 debut, Neighboring Sounds – which also revolved around an apartment building. The difference is that Neighboring Sounds was a large, expansive film – focusing on many different characters, from different backgrounds, taking in a large swath of Brazilian society. Oddly, Aquarius is much more narrowly focused – Braga is pretty much the whole show here – and yet it runs longer than Neighboring Sounds does. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, Aquarius is undeniably too long and too repetitive to be a great film, which Neighboring Sounds was. A tighter film would likely be better. Yet, it’s hard it’s almost hard to fault Mendonça Filho too much here. He is clearly enamored with Braga, and her work, and wants to show it off. And Braga, who seems to know how good this role is, embraces it and runs with it.
The opening of the film is the only part that doesn’t focus on Braga. It’s a prologue set in 1980, where Clara, still recovering from breast cancer, attends a party for her Aunt – Tia Lucia (Thaia Perez). If at first, it seems like a typical party for an aging family member at first, Mendonça Filho gradually deepens it. Clara’s children tell the story of Tia Lucia’s life – a political activist, a thinker, and much else – she notices a piece of furniture, and flashes back to an erotic episode of her past. Tia Lucia is a fascinating, older woman with a story of her own to tell. Clara is one as well.
Aquarius is at its best when it doesn’t force Clara into the plot. Yes, the fight with the real estate developer provides the plot of the film, and gives the film its satisfying climax – even if it that ending sequence is louder than the rest of the film, it’s hard not to feel inspired by Clara sticking it to her tormenters. Yet, I also couldn’t help but wonder why Clara is so committed to staying put. The developers are offering her more than market value for her apartment. She is comfortable, and could move somewhere else. Even her kids don’t seem to quite understand – even if they support her. She has her records, her giant Barry Lyndon movie-poster, and dammit, she ain’t leaving.
The film is better when it focuses on Clara herself – her life and her feelings. She has an active social life with friends – but is sexually frustrated. Everyone else she knows has boyfriends, but despite being a widow for 17 years, she doesn’t. The film refreshingly treats her as sexual being – with needs and desires, and even more refreshingly, as someone desirable herself.
I liked much of Aquarius, and yet other than Braga’s performance, I must admit I wasn’t wholly won over by it. It seems like a film that tries to impose a structure and a story on a character who would be better off without it. I’ve seen some suggest that the film – and Clara’s struggle – is a metaphor for Brazil itself – and perhaps that is true, but for someone outside of Brazil, and not as familiar with the country as perhaps I should be, any of those references went over my head. Still, the film is an excellent character study, and contains a great performance by Sonia Braga. The rest of the movie cannot live up to her performance - and the film cannot camper to Mendonça Filho’s excellent debut, but it’s a solid film nonetheless.

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