Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Cast: Sonia Braga, Humberto Carrão, Irandhir Santos, Pedro Queiroz, Zoraide Coleto, Maeve Jinkings, Fernando Teixeira, Buda Lira, Paula de Renor, Bárbara Colen, Thaia Perez, Daniel Porpino
Running Time: 2:22
Release Date: 10/14/16 (limited); 10/21/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 20, 2016
A cabinet, which stands about chest-high, sits in the corner of the apartment. It means very little to anyone, except for the woman whose 70th birthday is being celebrated on a fine night in 1980. For the woman's niece, who now has possession of it, it's a gift, a hand-me-down, from her beloved aunt. For the aunt, it's the thing that calls to mind the fond memory of an intimate encounter with the man she loved. He has since died, but in the prologue of Aquarius, she makes certain to offer a toast to him on this evening.
In the present day, the niece still lives in the apartment in the well-to-do part of the city of Recife, Brazil. The cabinet still sits there. What was once a memory for the aunt is now a memory of the aunt. "They don't make them like her anymore," a relative says. Clara (Sonia Braga), the niece who is now much closer to a 70th birthday than the age she was on her aunt's milestone, silently agrees.
The aunt has gone, but so, too, has Clara's husband, who offered another toast that night some 35 years ago. It was to his wife, who endured multiple visits to the hospital, tough chemotherapy treatment, and a mastectomy to overcome breast cancer.
This apartment has seen plenty of joy, like the aunt's party, and pain, like Clara's struggle with cancer and the loss of her husband at a too-early age. It has become a memento unto itself, filled with other reminders of the past, such as the cabinet that secretly meant one thing to its previous owner and something else entirely to its current possessor, and a constant realization that those times, as well as the people who populated them, are gone.
Clara is the final resident of the apartment complex. Everyone else has packed up and left, having signed a deal with a construction company that wants to demolish the building and erect a new structure. Diego (Humberto Carrão), a company representative, has made Clara a very generous cash offer. She declines, resists the pressures of the company and the former residents (who won't get what they were offered until the plan goes through), and finds herself in a passive-aggressive war of attrition with the company that eventually turns into something like biological warfare.
This resolution seems simple: Clara takes the offer and, using the money from the sale, finds a different place to live. The company wants it to happen. The former residents want it. Even Clara's children question her decision to stay. When Clara's daughter Ana (Maeve Jinkings) finds out how much the company is offering, she is stunned that "this apartment" would be worth that much to anyone. Clara hears the little emphasis on and pause after the word "this." The two argue, and it becomes heated. Ana wonders how her mother can be stubborn like an old woman and a child. It's because, Clara says, she is both an old lady and a child.
That's fair and honest insight from a character whose day-to-day struggles with grief, as well as the way this escalating conflict with the construction company only amplifies those feelings, are at the heart of the film. She's a woman who, even 17 years after the death of her husband, still hasn't figured out how she's supposed to live her life.
She wants to have a child-like sense of freedom, but things don't work out that way for her. Clara goes to a club with some friends, and a man, a widower about her age, asks if she'll dance with him. They end up in his car, and while they kiss like teenagers, his hands move to her chest. She explains what happened to her right breast, and his mood instantly drops. She ends up getting a ride home in a taxi. Later, on the recommendation of a friend, she calls a gigolo (partially to compete with the orgy being held by the friends of a company employee in apartment directly above hers). The night goes well, but after, she's haunted by the notion that someone has broken into and stalks around her apartment. Is it just the usual fear of being alone and, hence, vulnerable, or is it some form of guilt?
What we know for certain is that Clara, a retired music journalist, has a deep attachment to tangible things. Her music collection sprawls across shelves, and during an interview, she accepts the notion of digital platforms while lamenting the loss of the stories that physical media bring with them. She pulls out a copy of John Lennon's final album, released three weeks after his murder. She bought it at a used record store, and in it, she found an article, published a month before his death, discussing the artist's plans for the future. It's the kind of cosmic coincidence to which she, a woman who is losing more family members and friends than she's gaining, can relate.
The apartment is her final connection to the life she once knew and is unready to abandon. The film, written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, is a string of scenes in which Clara must confront her conflict between the lure of—and feelings of need to honor—the past and the freedom of—and the anxiety of taking advantage of that freedom within—the present.
While Mendonça Filho's approach offers something akin to a respectful distance from Clara's inner life (A silent scene at her husband's grave, for example, doesn't force the character to bear her soul), Braga's performance is fully open about the ways in which this character handles these conflicts—within herself and with the company. The combination makes Aquarius a thoughtful and revealing study of this woman's battles.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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