Originally published by Sight & Sound, May 20, 2016
A work of resolute social consciousness, Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho’s second feature and followup to his well-regarded Neighbouring Sounds (2012) is at once a refinement and a deepening of the social and stylistic preoccupations laid out so comprehensively in the critic-turned-director’s debut. Expansive yet focused, Aquarius confirms Mendonça’s commitment to Brazil’s middle-class populace – a caste otherwise underrepresented in international cinema – and asserts a newly evident skill for dramatic storytelling.
It stars Sonia Braga, a beloved veteran of the Brazilian entertainment industry and an occasional bit-player on US television, in a showcase role as Clara, a middle-aged widowed fighting a ruthless property firm for ownership of her lifelong beachside apartment; and covers significant ground over its three-part, 140-minute runtime. Revolving around Clara’s present-day plight, but with evocative flashbacks through her and her family’s musically-instilled past, the narrative shifts into a casual rhythm as the lives of this otherwise typical clan begin to bear the burden of decades of cultural disenfranchisement.
Over a very short period Mendonça has established himself as one of international cinema’s most political filmmakers – though his work, significantly, remains concerned with small battles and axiomatic injustices rather than broadsides against faceless bureaucrats. Neighbouring Sounds offered a balmy portrait of a isolated community whose anxieties are intensified rather than alleviated by the arrival of a private security force; one of its primary antagonists is an unruly canine. Also set in Recife, Aquarius’ drama is similarly localised, though the repercussions of its economic and civic particulars are placed on one family and, in particular, one woman whose elegant but determined demeanour suggests a past with no shortage of trials and tribulations.
A breast-cancer survivor whose mastectomy scars have kept her psychologically inhibited from fully enjoying the sexual freedoms of middle age, Clara, a former music critic, directs her passion into the legacies and Samba and Tropicalia just as she has spent years personalising the domestic decoupage of her home. Mendonça’s reverence for Clara as both an enduring sexual specimen and a beacon of self-possession is apparent: she appears in nearly every scene, framed in an array of loving closeups and rich, widescreen compositions; on more than one occasion the narrative pauses simply to observe as she sings and sways elegantly to the exotic sounds emanating from her hi-fi.
Between episodes of Clara’s ongoing municipal efforts, we learn of the personal anxieties and lingering emotional matters that inform her lifestyle but in no way define her being. In one of the film’s more memorable sequences, she reluctantly enlists the services of a male partner for an evening, a transactional arrangement she nonetheless engages in with equal parts dignity and, eventually, delight. When even her family begins to question her obstinacy against relinquishing her home, it’s Clara’s pride and sense of self as much as it is her property that she appears unwilling to renounce.
Largely adhering to the finer narrative details of Clara’s journey, Mendonça sacrifices a bit of the hallucinogenic wonder and sprawling sense of urban landscape so key to Neighboring Sounds‘ intoxicating allure. Nonetheless co-cinematographers Pedro Sotero and Fabrício Tadeu’s images retain a magnitude inseparable from the film’s settings, casting Recife’s unique architecture in warm light and sun-baked hues. A number of stray images, such as an aside in which the camera happens upon a burning mattress, or multiple instances where the camera is set at an off-angle to the action, resulting in an exaggerated depth of field, hint at his formal ingenuity, which is otherwise sublimated into the dramaturgy.
In consolidating his various preoccupations, Mendonça has crafted a potent portrait of personal and political struggle, one all the more universal for how specifically and intimately it expresses its concerns. ♦