A Film By Kleber Mendonça Filho
Genre: Drama • Year: 2016 • Country: Brazil | France • Running Time: 142 minutes • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Image: Colour • Language: Portuguese
Taking its title from the coastal Recife apartment block that serves as the film’s principle location, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s outstanding second feature-length drama – the follow-up to his brilliant 2012 feature debut Neighbouring Sounds – is a refined, mature and incredibly well rendered work that impeccably blends richly detailed character study with subtle political exasperation and a biting critique of the significant class boundaries within contemporary Brazilian society.
Like Neighbouring Sounds, Aquarius is unsentimental in its approach and unfolds within a small, close-knit environment, but although it doesn’t quite match the overall angst of the former, it still doesn’t shy away from tackling the bigger subjects.
Veteran screen actress Sônia Braga is on career best form in the star-vehicle role of Clara, a 65 year old widow and retired music critic, and the last remaining resident of the eponymous 1940’s apartment building in which she has built her life. Situated on the upper-class, beach-side setting of Boa Viagem Avenue, the building is a prime target for the ruthless property developers and new owners determined to transform the art deco site into luxury new modern accommodation. Rightfully refusing to budge from her lifelong home, Clara soon finds herself caught up in a nasty battle against large scale bureaucracy, all the while forced to fight her corner against family and old friends mutually critical of her resistance.
Through a series of poignant – and often musically themed – flashbacks, Filho uses the echoes of the past to weave a gentle, allegorical tale of cherished memories, individual strength and the restorative power of music and culture. In doing so he transforms the building into a principal character in its own right; a silent observer for over half a centuries worth of memories and secrets.
It is also during these intimate sequences that we learn of the events that have forged Clara into the resilient, proud survivor she is today. Her battle with breast cancer has given her the strength and the will power to carry on and endure through any hurdle she is faced with, though other personal anxieties in her past have drawn out a vulnerability she struggles to hold back.
Though technically unfolding in three chapters, Aquarius is very much a film of two distinct parts. At around the 80-minute mark the tone changes quite significantly, moving from a very gentle and intimate first half into a much more intense and impassioned second as it moves towards its emotionally charged conclusion.
Undoubtedly Aquarius won’t be for everyone as the deliberately slow pacing does make it somewhat challenging in portions, though it is mot definitely not without rewards for those willing to immerse themselves in Clara’s journey.
Complex, multi-layered and incredibly authentic, Aquarius is an outstanding and highly relevant film, perfectly executed by Filho and with a sublime central performance from Braga.