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Brazil 2016
Directed by
Kleber Mendonça Filho
145 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


Synopsis: Clara (Sônia Braga), a 65-year-old widow and music writer, battles with a property developer to stay in her apartment in Recife, capital of the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco.

The controversy surrounding Kleber Mendonça Filho’s film in its home country of Brazil aside, Aquarius is a remarkable achievement that tells a richly layered story with subtlety, economy, originality and passion.

Whilst clearly its main preoccupation, the struggle of one woman to stay in her much-loved home which is filled with a life-time of memories, as rapacious developers with one interest only  - to make money - circle for the kill has a very clear address to its Brazilian audience (the film was excluded by the right-wing Brazilian government from contention for this year Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards) it describes a situation which affects us all as ‘luxury’ multi-story unit developments spring up like poisoned mushrooms, replacing neighbourhood character with faceless homogeneity.

The  main reason to see this film however is not its political and social import but rather its  extraordinary ability to portray a life with a lightness of touch that still manages to say so much. Indeed although we come to know Dona Clara largely through her interaction with other characters the sense of knowing her as a person is fully realized (the director’s previous film and his first feature, Neighbouring Sounds, which was set in a high-rise housing complex in the same locale, the director’s home town, no doubt served as an valuable apprenticeship for this film)

Whilst the spine of the story is Clara’s trenchant refusal to capitulate to the developers, this core drama is embellished by a variety of incidents which serve to bring her closer to us. Firstly there is a kind of prologue which introduces her as a young woman (played by Barbara Colen) in 1980, celebrating the birthday of her free-spirited aunt (Thaia Perez) from which we learn that she is recovering from a serious illness. Then the film jumps forward to the present day when Clara (played by Sônia Braga) is now a widow and mother to three adult children and the last remaining resident of Aquarius, an old but to her, perfectly desirable apartment building. During  her battles to keep her home we learn of her past, her experience with breast cancer which resulted in a unilateral mastectomy, her relationship with her now adult children, her nephew, her girlfriends, now mostly widowed or divorced, her long-term housekeeper, the lifeguard at the beach across the road from her apartment. her interests in music, her memories, her sexual appetites and so on.  

It is a marvellously rich portrait skilfully brought to life by the director’s deft helming of his own script and an intense but nuanced performance from Braga. That it balances the twin purposes of political critique and personal drama so well is quite unusual. In this respects it stands in favourable contrast to the recently released German Oscar contender Toni Erdmann with which it is broadly comparable. Both deal with the struggles of a single woman to survive in the modern world and both make a pointed critique of capitalist avarice. But whereas in the latter case we get an amusingly whimsical illustration of these issues, Aquarius makes them flesh and blood reality.

Aquarius is a relatively long film and Mendonça takes his time with telling his story but it is one well worth both telling and knowing.




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