Clara (Sonia Braga) is a defiant force of nature, a retired music critic left as the sole occupant in a building she has inhabited for decades. Life has truly been lived in her apartment, where loved ones have been tragically lost, personal traumas overcome and children successfully raised. The turntable and shelves stacked full of classic vinyl speaks of a life spent intertwined with music, both professionally and personally. She is as much a part of her home as it is her; an embodiment of who Clara was and is today.
Time and history are the reoccurring themes resonating throughout Aquarius, the second film from director Kleber Mendonça Filho. The prologue starts in the early 80s, recalling a private memory that brings a smile to the face of Clara’s Aunt Lucia, an innocuous chest of drawers holding the secret within its varnished fixtures. The sexual liberation she enjoyed in the 60s is expressed through a piece of furniture that continues to be used five decades later, still in Clara’s apartment. Later in the film Clara is interviewed by a local paper, and she summarises the power held by these physical objects, recalling a press clipping once found inside a second hand John Lennon album. “A message in a bottle,” she calls it, explaining how the past and present will always find a way to communicate with each other.
The other tenants in Clara’s building have long since sold up and left and the property developers are frustrated by her unwillingness to do the same. They resort to intimidation and harassment in an attempt to force Clara to leave but haven’t reckoned on her stubbornness and resolve. Aquarius is the name of the building itself, a once prime piece of property overlooking the local seafront in Recife, Brazil. The idea is to tear it down and build a modern high-rise, a plan the developers cannot realise until they push Clara out of her flat.
Braga adds real depth to this character study, a woman under siege from outsiders but left open enough for us to witness her faults. There is a slight air of haughtiness and snobbery about Clara, derived from the life of comfort she has been able to live mostly due to her deceased husband’s success, a fact she is sharply reminded of by her own daughter. But she remains a character we are fully behind with Braga’s calm presence never disappearing from view. The fight with the developers evokes something of a reawakening in Clara, and Braga’s detailed performance shows how some of that cobwebbed nostalgia is beginning to be brushed aside.
There are some elements of corruption and bad politics lingering in the background and given its location you could form easy metaphors or draw lazy conclusions. Those connotations remain slight and appear more as a result of the escalating situation in Clara’s building and not so much to open up a wider commentary on the political landscape in the country. There are a million and more stories waiting to be told about Brazil, and to keep tying them back up with the international rhetoric will not allow them to be heard with clarity.
This is an accomplished second film from Filho who continues his exploration of our relationship with the architecture we are so intrinsically bound to. Our memories are constantly playing tricks on us and if not being warped by time and new experiences changing their meaning and potency, they can just as easily disappear. It is just as likely the real truth remains buried deep inside the walls of our homes and the objects that encapsulate our lives.