Movie Review – Aquarius

Aquarius (2016)
Written & Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho

In 1980, Clara had survived breast cancer and celebrates her aunt’s birthday with her family in her home in the Aquarius apartment building. Her home in Recife, Brazil overlooks the beautiful beach, and she feels at peace with her husband, her children, and this renewed life she has having conquered cancer. Over thirty years later, she is a widow, still living in the same apartment with only her housekeeper as a regular companion. A developing company is attempting to buy Clara out so they can demolish the building and construct office high rises. Clara refuses and has become the only resident left in the Aquarius. We follow the aging woman for the next few months as the company, who already owns the remaining apartments, tries to drive her out and how Clara reflects on her life.

Early in the film, we learn that Clara is a writer, specializing in music and a local paper is interviewing her. The leading question is if Clara dislikes modern streaming and digital music. Clara gives a good answer saying that she loves music period. However, she qualifies that by taking a copy of Double Fantasy off her overflowing shelves of vinyl records. Inside the album is a newspaper clipping of an interview with John Lennon a couple of weeks before he was killed. Clara explains how she found this album in a used music store in a nearby neighborhood and that the previous owner, possibly in Los Angeles, put this article in the sleeve. She compares this to a message in a bottle, across time and space, and this is why the physical object can resonate with more meaning than something ethereal and online. The Aquarius is a message in a bottle, the building is the repository of all of Clara’s memories as a wife and mother and no amount of photo albums, as we see she has many later, can replace the aura that this building exudes.

This film vibrates with a tangible sense of place, both the apartment building and the beach beyond. I was reminded of visits to similar tropical locations in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The movie also provides a window to the complexity and joy of the people in the Latin American world, their focus on devouring life and surrounding themselves with big families.

On the flipside, Mendonça Filho doesn’t shy away from touching on the economic divides present in Brazil. He doesn’t delve quite as deep as I would have liked or the way films like City of God did, but we do hear mention of Clara’s family being “dark-skinned” and therefore have to struggle to get to their comfortable financial place in society. Clara’s housekeeper interrupts her family’s reminiscences over photo albums by asking to share a wallet size image she keeps of her son. The family reverently goes with her request, and we’re left wondering if her son lives far away and she doesn’t often see him or if he’s passed on. The sense that there’s a distance between the inner lives of Clara and her housekeeper is made clear in this scene.

Sonia Braga plays Clara and imbues her with both strength and vulnerability in the most satisfying way. In contemporary cinema, there’s a trend of labeling younger female action stars as “strong women” in the most literal sense of that adjective. These are often not sharply written characters and end up as shallow as their ubiquitous male counterparts. I don’t know if it’s me getting older, it likely is, but I am coming to appreciate the performances of older women in film, the way they provide that balance of emotional strength but also convey the flaws of their characters. Clara’s life and history are, and her stance on the Aquarius feels conflicted. She’s entirely in the right about this being her home and having a claim to stay. However, we get many contrary arguments, and it’s up to the audience to decide whose side they come down on.

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