Aquarius, director Kleber Mendonça Filho's follow up to his 2012 debut (Neighbouring Sounds), is a beautiful film in both style and spirit. In a breathtaking and candid performance, Sonia Braga stars as Clara, a 65-year-old widow and retired music critic. Born into a wealthy yet traditional family, she is the last resident of a two-story apartment block in Recife, Brazil, a building from where the film gets its name. All the neighbouring apartments have been acquired by a company that have plans to develop the plot, but Clara has lived there for all of her adult life and will not relinquish her home easily.
The film itself is not as precise as the plot suggests and is shot in a Realist style. It’s socially conscious and considers race, poverty and gender in passing, but more succinctly, it is about life, love, family, sex and the nostalgia that connects them. It is told from the point of view of a proud woman who wishes to live quietly, surrounded by the objects and people that life has gathered around her. There is a tinge of sadness. Clara is a widow and a cancer survivor, events from her past that continue to inform her present, but she is content nonetheless, confident and fiery too. She doesn’t even need the apartment in a financial sense; she chooses to stay there because it is truly her home. Metaphorically, the building is Clara and the narrative consequently needs little to drive it. What happens to one, happens to both, just as it always has since she was a young woman.
The story begins in 1979. A young Clara is on the beach at night, impressing her friends with music (Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust, which is a perfect way to start any film) before they arrive late to a party in the apartment. It is an elderly aunt’s birthday and the room is full of people and music. A speech by Clara’s husband tells us a great deal without saying much at all.
These opening scenes are hypnotic. The film entire is, but to set such a spellbinding tone during the busiest scene and then commit to it just speaks of the generous confidence Filho has. Music is a constant throughout and even in the bustling party, a rhythm is found in the happy chorus of cheers. There is rhythm too in the silky photography. Filho’s camera moves through the throng steadily, and indistinct editing creates an illusion of it being constant, uninterrupted. Imagine if you will, Scorsese's urgent work on Goodfellas in a more measured pace. Even a cheeky flashback for the aunt feels organic - her attention drifting to a cabinet, triggering a memory of when she had sex on top of it, distracting her from her young niece's speech. Filho’s film is in no way trying to shock. It is merely human, and without a shred of sentimentality.
The aunt does not feature again, but the cabinet has not moved as the film jumps to the brightly lit present. We assume Clara doesn’t appreciate her aunt’s literally intimate knowledge of the furniture and yet it is merely there, just as all of her vinyl records are too. They are part of the fabric of Clara’s life and of that building.
As with everything else in Aquarius, and in the tradition of Realism to which the film subscribes, Clara’s success as a music critic is only inferred. The soundtrack is wonderful, as you’d reasonably expect. Irreverent and eclectic, it gives voice to Clara’s innermost passions. The choices are largely Brazilian, but also includes a second Queen track (they were a huge success in South America). How Clara plays Fat Bottomed Girls is laugh-out-loud, punch the air brilliant. When music isn't playing, the soundtrack to Clara’s tranquillity is provided by the environment, especially the sea as it is so close to the building.
That tranquillity, Clara’s quiet life, her very existence, is under threat from the developers, just as her life was once threatened by cancer. The effect on the building is the same, despite their promises of a bright future. That won’t wash with Clara. Just as she has nothing against digital music, she’s more comfortable with the tangibility of her beloved vinyl, or her original Barry Lyndon film poster, and of all things she cherishes. They are not discarded so easily. Her friends, family and especially her lovely maid are constants too, though sometimes they think they know what is best for her and she has to battle them as well to defend her point-of-view but defend it she will.
The power of things to evoke a memory and to justify ageing runs through the story and Sonia Braga embodies it perfectly. Somewhat like Audrey Hepburn with added South American grit, her performance is disguising a fiery resolve, tempered by wry humour in everything she sees. A liberal with attitude, perhaps. As the developer’s tactics turn nastier, an air of sinister tension takes hold and yet, Sonia’s steely gaze never falters. Married with Filho’s respectful direction, neither she nor the film will be hurried. His dedication to his method and his power to hold our attention while seeming to do little is exemplary. Much of it is down to the luminous Sonia Braga and yet the sly, brilliant photography must not be taken for granted.
Clara has a luxurious life, but with an air of melancholic nostalgia. The film is a tribute to the past, to memory; she is not afraid of the future, just of a future that doesn’t respect the past. The generous running time clocks in at nearly two and a half hours, but it flies by. You will laugh a lot and cry a little and wish you could spend more time with the mesmerising and witty Clara, especially if you had the chance to leaf through her awesome music collection. In short, Aquarius is profound and a film for our times.
The photography in Aquarius is astounding. Rich and warm, often utilising a narrow depth of field to wonderful effect. The Blu-ray from Arrow has a healthy grain and handles both the softer dark scenes and the bright Brazilian sunshine with aplomb. Sonia Braga stares with defiance into the camera and ageing detail is not shied away from.
Aquarius has an excellent soundtrack. Ramp up the volume for Fat Bottomed Girls because it sounds fantastic blasting out from Clara's own speakers. Otherwise, diegetic music plays from a variety of sources throughout the film, and when no music is there, the environment is a soft constant. Voices are centred and clear.
New Interview with Director Kleber Mendonça Filho
Making of featurette