Country: Brazil, France
Director/Writer: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Cinematography: Pedro Sotero, Fabricio Tadeu
Paula De Renor
Allan Souza Lima
Brazilian film critic turned filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho’s second feature AQUARIUM, after his well-acclaimed debut NEIGHBORING SOUNDS (2012), has already received Cannes main competition treatment, which could be boosted by the consequential involvement of one of Brazilian cinema’s living legends, Sonia Braga, who dauntlessly takes its central role of Clara, a retired music critic and refuses to move out of the film’s titular building in Recife even if she is the only resident remains.
The film’s vintage prologue takes us back to 1980, we are first introduced to a young Clara (Coleen), celebrates both her victory over cancer (later a briefing scene will inform us it is breast cancer) and her aunt’s (a sprightly silver-haired Perez) 70th birthday, who reminisces of her wild youth (a carnal liberation in particular) when she clocks to an inconspicuous cabinet, which will become a mnemonic to trigger Clara down to her own memory lane 35 years later.
In the present time, Clara has outlived her husband for 17 years (life has its unpredictable quirks, who could image a seemingly healthier husband would be gone so soon) and now lives alone, she takes the leisurely pace to continue her daily life, as an independent, mature and loving woman: schmoozing with the lifeguard (Santos) on the beach where she routinely swims; enjoying a dancing night with her girlfriends and having no qualms to engage in a spur-of-the-moment making-out with a widower, who politely recedes to decency when he is aware of her physical condition (how shallow a man could be?). And obviously she has become much closer to her nephew Tomas (Queiroz) than her three adult offspring (a married son, a divorced daughter and a gay son), especially her relationship with her daughter Ana Paula (Jinkings) is strained, because of the status quo: the Aquarius building, erected in the 40s, is acquired by a construction company for a complete reconstruction except for Clara’s apartment, and Ana Paula doesn’t understand the reason why Clare won’t sell it.
So what is the reason? Clare cannot be bought off by money because as she claims that she has 5 apartments under her name, therefore she has no financial exigency to exchange her favorite property into cash, which marks her a different case from the usual hungry-for-pecuniary-gain mass. Aquarius adumbrates her fondness, nostalgia and affections of her long winded past, all the happenings (like the B-day party in the prologue) comprising her entire life, in her sense, they live and die with the building itself. There is no denying it is a somewhat selfish reason to sabotage a project might be beneficial to assuage the local housing problem. But Mendonça Filho is trenchant and adamant to exercise the disproof, a final startling revelation will jolt Clara into the self-righteous action of hauling the evidence right in front of these corporate crooks. This is a tub-thumping censure to a society festered with sleaze and corruption, and utterly relatable in most corners of our world.
What hits the unusual mark of extraordinary is the filmmakers’ impeccable tact and devotion of playing out an unbiased portrait of a woman of certain age who, more often than not isn’t even be considered to assume the cynosure of a movie, and Mendonça Filho welcomes her with the full treatment including the often dismissed libidinous department, when you find out there is a raucous orgy organized in the empty apartment above yours, what is the best rebuttal other than calling an escort to quench that aroused thirst?
It goes without saying Ms. Braga’s towering performance is of tectonic import to the success of the film, so much composedly immersed herself in the character, she takes Clara’s prosaic daily life in stride, and not for one second, slackens her dignified defiance or renders it patronizing or haughty (which would very likely occur in lesser hands), she holds court whether there is a tacit awkwardness in her bungled sex-in-the-car diversion, or a whiff of disappointment toward her self-serving daughter, not to mention when she lets rip with a tirade in front of Diego (a smugly educated Carrão, admirably fending off Braga’s all-out verbal offensive), the young representative of the company, that sequence alone can give 2016 Best Actress hopefuls a run for their money!
AQUARIUS is ultimately a rapier-like social critique welded with an endearingly patient character study, manufactured with deliberation, consideration and integrity, a transcendent sophomore piece presages an auteur in the making. On a less rigorous note, it is a cautionary tale exhorting us not to mess with a refusenik who has a hammock in her apartment, which means that she has both strength and means to stick it to the end.