Writer/director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s highly observant film follows Sonia Braga in a tour de force performance as 65-year-old widow Clara, who battles developers goading her into leaving her cherished apartment to make way for a new high-rise. She is the last holdout, refusing to be bought out of the Aquarius complex in the coastal northeastern metropolis of Recife, the location for the director’s debut film, Neighboring Sounds and his hometown.
Her home evokes a lifetime of memories, from her married life and raising a family to surviving breast cancer. She is surrounded by cultural and personal artifacts accumulated over time—vinyl albums, hard cover books, and photo albums—objects that signal the taste and experience of the predigital generation of baby boomers. A hammock in the living room for napping and a poster of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon mark her bohemian sensibility, a holdover from the “age of Aquarius,” a notion of an astrological shift that would usher in an era of brotherhood and love, but a notion that now collides with the present.
Clara prizes her legacy but has one foot in the modern world with a girls’ nights at a dance hall, fitness regimes, and a sexual encounter. As a music journalist, she still prefers the turntable, but she is now versed in downloading MP3s. The film’s soundtrack mines her life for appropriate and wide-ranging songs—from Queen to Brazilian favorites such as Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethânia, and Roberto Carlos.
With her lush, dark mane, Clara emerges from her regular swims in the ocean like a James Bond girl. More than reaffirming her sexiness, her hairstyle contrasts with the short crop she sported in her younger years that was a badge of her rebounding health following chemotherapy back in 1980.
She bested cancer, and now she is in the ring again, fighting the young developer Diego (Humberto Carrão), whose charm belies sleazy tactics by his company, such as burning mattresses under her window and smearing feces in her hallways. As the conflict escalates, Clara’s self-determination deepens, revealing an uncompromising side that frustrates her neighbors, who want to sell, and her grown children.
Traveling for her music career had consumed her during her child rearing years. Ana Paula (Maeve Jinkings), her insolvent divorced daughter, still harbors some bitterness and now beseeches her to sell the apartment. For Ana Paula, financial security is paramount, unlike her mother’s focus on a satisfying life of art and pleasure. Despite affording a longtime maid and owning an expansive apartment on the beach, Clara is squarely “of the people,” with her counterculture roots and involvement in the David and Goliath clash. Her resilience grows through adversity, and she builds a coalition. A collaborative effort to expose the developers brings the film to an exhilarating denouement.
Braga came into international prominence as a symbol of South American sensuality in Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1976), followed by Kiss of the Spider Woman (1984) and Moon Over Parador (1988). She now lives in New York City. Mendonça Filho flew to New York to appeal to her to take on the role in Aquarius, which is the first in her native tongue in 20 years.
With its anti-establishment bent, Aquarius has come to represent leftist values in Brazil and created a stir in the midst of the country’s recent political crisis. At its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the cast protested what has been viewed as a right-wing coup d’état against President Dilma Rousseff. The peaceful protest continued when about a dozen protesters stood by the side of the stage at its American premiere at the New York Film Festival. (They received a rousing, extended reception by the audience as they were escorted out.) The exclusion of the film as the country’s entry for the best foreign language Oscar is considered to be an act of retaliation by the new government.
Aquarius is a captivating portrait, and for those who would age nobly, it is a playbook.