Monday, October 17, 2016

Aquarius (***)

Written and Directed by Kleber Mendonca Filho


A film like Aquarius - a patient, thoughtful film that takes on a wide variety of themes including gentrification, mortality and gender - is something to be cherished. Is it perhaps too long? Definitely. Kleber Mendonca Filho's second feature meanders on long passages all in the attempt at mood. He wants you to truly feel the effects of age, of time passing, of life escaping. Veteran Brazilian actress Sonia Braga plays Clara, Aquarius' protagonist. Clara is a woman who has consumed a lot: education, culture, life experience. She had the benefit of being well-to-do in a part of Brazil where poverty is rampant, but she used her privilege to live a cosmopolitan life of passion, and the trials she's experienced has done work only toward strengthening her resolve. She's too old, too experienced to be contradicted or patronized. She won't allow it. The wide scope of life that has formed this woman is the center of Mendonca Filho's film. Her late-life crusade against a rising culture that wishes to squelch the tradition that has been such a large part of her life - and her survival - is a journey rich with symbolism and expression. She's not the only person who is correct, but she is the most correct, and that conviction drives her into a tense showdown against those who thought she'd be easy to push aside.

Clara is a retired music critic in her mid-sixties. In her thirties, she survived breast cancer, but still bares the scares. She had three children with her husband, who passed away, and she now lives alone in the same Recife apartment she's owned for decades. When a young representative named Diego (Humberto Carrão) knocks on her door to offer her a buy-out of her Art Deco home, Clara refuses. She doesn't even look at their offer. Diego is heading a project which will place the vintage Aquarius Apartments with a newer, modern high-rise. He's bought out all of the other tenants, but Clara stubbornly stays. Clara begins getting pressure from her family, fearing that the prideful stance Clara is taking will do nothing but cause her undue stress. Her friends warn her about the vindictiveness of these developers, and the ruthlessness with which they go about executing their plans. And before you know it, Clara and her housekeeper Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto) begin getting harassed in various ways. They get passive-agressive threats from Diego, obnoxiously loud parties are thrown in the apartment above hers, areas of the building are vandalized. Clara's daughter Ana Paula (Maeve Jinkings) is worried about her mother living alone in such an unsafe building. She doesn't understand why Clara should fight such a quixotic battle.

You see, for Clara the indignity comes from more than just essentially being forced from her home. Diego doesn't see Clara as an accomplished academic or a war-tested cancer survivor. He barely even sees her as a human being. His insincere smile reflects that she is no more than an obstacle to him, just another hassle to be dealt with. The cost of business. Clara's lips purse at the very extent of his arrogance and thoughtlessness. Clara is a complicated woman yearning for a simpler time. She loves music, has an extensive vinyl record collection, but is not above adjusting to the times and listening to digital music. Her shelves are cluttered with books. The wall next to her kitchen is covered almost entirely with a poster for Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. This woman is cultured and she is not too familiar with being dismissed like this - and she's not above a fight. Braga's performance as Clara is otherworldly, and Mendonca Filho is asking an awful lot of her. The performance is physical and sensual, but the power comes from the internalizing that Braga is able to pull off. She is mortified by the very thought of what Diego is asking her to do, and she can't even consider the suggestions from Ana Paula and her other friends and family. Allowing Diego and the construction company to win will just be another bully pushing over the little guy. Braga is able to find such a blistering humanity in all the notes that the film asks her to play.

Mendonca Filho does get sidetracked from time to time. Pensive asides linger for a few minutes too many here and there. His injection of graphic sexuality in brief moments gives the film a proper cultural context but is a bit jarring at moments. Perhaps I'm just being prudish, but it didn't always feel necessary. Aquarius is about so many things, and at times I wondered how much better the film would have been if it was just about one thing. That does leave the film without some of its charms. Its long-windedness does allow the movie to capture some beautiful moments, but I'm not totally sure if the beauty adds anything. Despite the length, Mendonca Filho and editor Eduardo Serrano are able to weave together a terrific editing style. It never seems like a single cut is wasted, which complements Mendonca Filho's contemplative, Altman-esque camera work. It's hard to blame a film for its length when every shot and every image feels this deliberate. But this is Braga's show, and she is what makes Aquarius such an enchanting film to behold. She adds a humanity to the poetic mechanics that Mendonca Filho is attempting. This story only works if you really understand Clara and believe in her cause. Mendonca Filho goes a long way toward achieving this, but it's Braga who really brings it home in one of the best performances I've seen this year.