Clara, a 65 year old widow and retired music critic, was born into a wealthy and traditional family in Recife, Brazil. She is the last resident of the Aquarius, an original two-story building, built in the 1940s, in the upper-class, seaside Boa Viagem Avenue, Recife. All the neighbouring apartments have already been acquired by a company which has other plans for that plot. Clara has pledged to only leave her place upon her death, and will engage in a cold war of sorts with the company. This tension both disturbs Clara and gives her that edge on her daily routine. It also gets her thinking about her loved ones, her past and her future.
(Reviewed at the 2016 CANNES FILM FESTIVAL)
Music critic Clara (Barbara Colen) pops a tape into the cassette deck and cranks up the volume as her friends experience John Deacon’s bass line from ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ for the first time. It’s 1980, they’re in a car that’s parked on a Brazilian beach, and the sedan itself starts dancing on the sand as its occupants pulse in unison – all synchronised head jerks and ‘super cool’ overbites. It’s a great opening scene, and a fantastically loud introduction to the mighty Clara’s defiant spirit, and her archive of sense memories.
Clara & Co. are on a quick time-out from the 70th birthday party of her beloved Aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez), which is taking place in the Aquarius apartment building across the road. Lucia smiles through a series of speeches that could well double as her eulogy… until her gaze settles upon a piece of furniture that jolts her back to red-hot sexy times of her youth, when she straddled a lover atop the art deco sideboard.
The spirited opening scenes are recalled in various ways in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s excellent Aquarius, an expertly layered contemplation of legacy, explored through a woman’s fight to keep her home and its inventory of treasured keepsakes.
1980s Clara rocks a pixie cut that accentuates her gorgeous face and massive smile, but more than that, the ‘do is a symbol of survival, being the regrowth from a hard-won battle with breast cancer. In the present day, Clara’s hair has grown in long and thick and she wields her lustrous locks like a weapon. It cascades down the back of her elder self, who is played by ponytail whipper extraordinare, Sonia Braga. In the intervening years, Clara’s raised her kids and survived her husband within the walls of that same apartment (in which Lucia’s sex cabinet still stands). She’s a fierce and feisty woman of independent means, and seems satisfied spending her retirement flirting with lifeguards and playing her enviable archive of LPs (or the odd MP3, FYI), until a knock at the door brings with it the second fight of her life.
"Brazil's answer to 'The Castle'."
The Aquarius beachfront apartments have been earmarked for redevelopment and contrarian Clara is the lone holdout. A business school graduate on a charm offensive woos her to a sign contract – and Clara’s former neighbours (and their heirs) want their promised payout. She resents the expectation that she should trade up for the sake of it, so she tells them all to stick it, and cranks up the stereo (to a Queen track, again) when heavies try to drive her out with noise.
Aquarius shares much with Mendonça Filho’s 2012 Neighbouring Sounds, not least the setting (his home city). This too, is a thoughtful thesis on changing environments, and the impact of urban renewal upon established communities. However, it adheres to a more straightforward structure than the experimental Sounds. You might say it's Brazil's answer to The Castle.
The increasingly dirty tricks the developers employ to hasten Clara’s exit speak to a broader cultural malignancy – and Mendonça Filho’s critique of the knockdown-rebuild phenomenon along the Recife beachfront becomes concerned with more than just a wily widow’s real estate holdings.
Braga was badly done by not to win the acting award at Cannes for her commanding performance as a complex wounded warrior (prone to her own empathy blind spots), drawing power from the best and worst of her past experience.
It’s easy to read Aquarius’ stand against corruption and Clara’s powerful memory as a parable for Brazil’s precarious social/political upheaval. Indeed, the film’s premiere in Cannes was used a platform to protest the evolving crisis in its government and judiciary, which is threatening to subvert the fledgling democracy. The political allegory is elegantly executed but the film's lessons reach further still. Post-Cannes, Aquarius will compete for the Sydney Film Prize at the 2016 Sydney Film Festival*. It’s a canny acquisition for the festival, given Sydney itself is in the grip of protests about an expanding casino development, and a series of controversial planning decisions are being framed as a battle for the city’s soul. Remember the past, the film cautions, before it too, bites the dust.
*Aquarius went on to win the Sydney Film Prize. Aquarius is screening in Melbourne from February 23.
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