'Aquarius': Cannes Review

Aquarius - H 2016
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Sonia Braga shines in this rather classic portrait of a woman who won’t let go.

Writer-director Kleber Mendonca Filho (‘Neighboring Sounds’) premiered his second narrative feature, starring veteran Brazilian actress Sonia Braga, in competition at Cannes.

Returning to the seaside Brazilian neighborhood of his memorable dramatic debut, Neighboring Sounds, but focusing this time on the life of a single aging resident — played by an elegant and still very passionate Sonia Braga — who makes a final stand against greedy real-estate developers, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Aquarius is a very different beast than his precedent film, even if it shares the same colorful setting.

More classically composed and narrated, with a nostalgia for the sights and sounds of old times, the pic is essentially a portrait of one woman holding on to her dignity as others try to take away what’s most dear to her: the apartment where she’s lived, loved and survived through various personal trials. Leisurely paced and carried by Braga’s diva-like panache, Aquarius is not quite the modernist narrative that fans of Neighboring Sounds would expect, but could appeal as a broader art-house item — in the vein of Sebastian Lelio’s Gloria — to be marketed to the senior set.

Recife, a mid-sized city located at the extreme eastern end of Brazil, offers a mix of beachfront towers and more humble two- to three-story structures that have managed to withstand the forces of speculative construction. It’s in one of those modest abodes that lives Clara (Braga), a retired music critic and the last remaining resident in a building that has been cleared out by an ambitious developer, Diego (Humberto Carrao), who plans to knock it down and put up yet another condominium.

For reasons that are mostly personal but also reflective of her taste for classical music and classic rock — especially Queen, two of whose tracks grace the film’s soundtrack — Clara declines Diego’s offer to buy her out for a hefty sum (about $600,000) while ignoring the entreaties of her daughter (Maeve Jinkings) to sell out and move on.

An opening sequence, set in 1979 and focusing on an aunt (Thaia Perez) of Clara’s who is celebrating her 70th birthday, shows how easily one can grow attached to the surrounding walls and furniture — in this case to a cupboard that sparks a flash of sexual memories in the older woman’s mind. When we jump to the present and find Clara (who we learn survived breast cancer) sitting in the same place, it’s clear that she’s now in the position of her aunt, looking back on her life from the home that has always been at the heart of it. (Clara has three kids and a few grandkids, but often seems more attached to her personal independence than to them.)

Filho builds a rather straightforward story around Clara’s growing resistance to Diego’s proposition, while revealing how a woman her age copes with loneliness (we also learn that her husband died years ago) and the passing of time. For the former, the director offers up two memorable scenes of elderly romance: the first involving an encounter whose heavy makeout session ends abruptly; the second with a gigolo who Clara calls over to the apartment one night and certainly gets her money’s worth out of.

Braga was a perfect choice to play someone stuck between an attachment to bygone times (especially to an LP collection of Brazilian and international hits) and a desire to boldly keep going. She’s more tempered here than in classics like Kiss of the Spider Woman and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (not to mention her memorable stint as Samantha’s lesbian fling on Sex and the City), but still offers a few explosive scenes amid a performance that underlines Clara’s resistance to the forces around her — especially during a final chapter where she tries to stick it to the man. (Indeed, there are times when Clara seems to not only be taking on Diego and his company, but corruption in Brazil as a whole — a topic that's certainly as prescient as ever.)

More airy in tone than Filho’s ambitious Neighboring Sounds, which played like a Brazilian Short Cuts with an avant-garde edge, Aquarius — whose title is taken from the name of Clara's building — may disappoint those who appreciated the experimental nature of the previous film, as there are only a handful of moments here that head in that direction. Otherwise, this endearing old-age drama works best as an earnest and colorful character study, even if it doesn't really break new cinematic ground.

Tech credits include vibrant widescreen cinematography by Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu that bathes the action in a warm and welcoming light, while a score composed of Clara’s favorite golden oldies constantly brings the past into the present.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: CinemaScopio, SBS Films, Videofilmes, Globo Filmes
Cast: Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Irandhir Santos, Humberto Carrao, Zoraide Coleto
Director-screenwriter: Kleber Mendonca Filho
Producers: Emilie Lesclaux, Said Ben Said, Michel Merkt
Executive producer: Dora Amorim
Directors of photography: Pedro Sotero, Fabricio Tadeu
Production designers: Juliano Dornelles, Thales Junqueira
Costume designer: Rita Azevedo
Editor: Eduardo Serrano
Sales agent: SBS International

In Portuguese

Not rated, 145 minutes