Aquarius [2016] – An Enthralling Meditation on Aging, Memory and Heritage


The major film-making renaissance that’s going on in Brazilian cinema happens to provide a fascinating point of view about Brazilian society. These new films aren’t intent to show the Brazil’s infamous favelas in order to ruminate on the issues of social stratification, bruised past, gentrification, etc. They are very personal stories, yet there’s sense of profundity which seems to be missing in fly-over-the-wall representation of Brazilian economic class. This year, I saw Gabriel Mascaro’s “Neon Bull” and Anna Muylaert’s “The Second Mother”, which are all less intent in manipulating our emotions. The well-crafted, nuanced aesthetic senses gradually pulls into the characters’ state of mind. The result is a tenderly humane piece which breaks away the stereotypes. The other important contemporary Brazilian film-maker, who makes intimate epics, set among the blistering social context is the film critic-turned-director Kleber Mendonca Filho.

Mr. Filho’s brilliant debut feature “Neighboring Sounds” (2012) explored the quotidian life of people living in a privileged neighborhood with a narrative that’s hardly tidy. His works, including the short films, were set in the rapidly ‘developing’ coastal city Recife, situated in the northern Brazilian state of Pernambuco. The towering city blocks of Recife are the vital, insentient characters of Mr. Filho’s works. In his stunning second film Aquarius (2016), Filho once gain offers a profound personal portrait which doubles up as a political allegory.


The On & Off-screen Conflicts

In a way, Aquarius is about people who invade and bully their way to get what they want. The parallel for this could be seen in current Brazilian politics. Mr. Filho was very vocal in objecting to the recent impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff (who was replaced by acting President Temer). The impeachment was the result of country’s worst recession crisis (since the 1930s). The director and his crew protested against the Brazilian government at Cannes Film Festival, bringing attention to the country’s political issue.The government reacted by slapping the film with an 18+ rating (brief, yet potent sexual content) and the committee responsible for choosing Brazil’s Oscar nominee rejected Aquarius. Neither the rejection for Oscars nor the strict rating clouded over the spectacular reach of Filho’s art-house feature. The film also got a good commercial opening, considering the limited screens it was allotted.

Brazilian actors from Aquarius cast hold protest signs as they arrive on May 17, 2016 for Cannes Film Festival (pic courtesy: Getty Images)

The controversies surrounding Aquarius may give off the feeling that the film is an act of protest. It definitely is, although the dissent isn’t expressed in a formal manner. First of all, Mr. Filho is keenly interested in realizing the inner life of a strong-willed 65 year old woman Clara (magnificently played by Sonia Braga). On one hand, it subtly deals with the issue of gentrification; while on the other hand, it works as a universal tale about the sacred nature of personal memories. It is an emotionally resonating lament on how the sense of self is destroyed, invaded, perverted, in the name of ‘business’, ‘development’, and ‘money’.

The aging widow & music critic Clara lives in a beach-side apartment in Recife that is planned for demolition to make way for a high-rise. The other residents of the apartment complex named Aquarius have sold their place and moved out. But, Clara is intent on staying and battling against the ever-smiling, malicious entrepreneurial developers. She is content to live with her shelves of vinyl records and a faithful house-keeper (Zoraldo Coleto). This is not just about preserving a habitat; for Clara it’s about preserving personal history. The ‘business’ graduates, of course use every trick in the book to pull Clara out of the apartment.

Despite having a premise which echoes loud socioeconomic messages, director Filho foremost focus is on offering a tender portrait of the 65 year old woman: her casual interactions with sons, daughters, and extended family; her quotidian activities; her desires and fear occupy the narrative. The sequences are drawn-out to pulls us into the everyday rhythm of Clara’s life. Nothing ever travels in a single direction. Filho’s brilliant critique of the defaced society lies in the way he celebrates life. So, except for a couple of finely escalated moments of fury, the proceedings give off the feeling of watching a tidal ebb and flow.

Although, Aquarius is devoid of three-act structure, it is divided into three parts. The first part opens on a particular day in 1980, a year after Clara’s (Barbara Colen) recovery from cancer. In this day, Clara’s beloved aunt celebrates her 70th birthday. The aunt may have some important memories about Brazil’s explosive past. Nothing is concretely said (except for a reference to female sexual liberation of the 1960s). But, in the way the unmarried, old aunt holds herself and speaks, gives a hint of her strong-will, which she has passed onto beloved nephew Clara. Clara’s loyal husband, the cute little kids, and younger brother provide a glimpse of beautiful life and memories she holds onto. In the aunt’s birthday party, the young and old dance together; the urban space of Recife, devoid of high-rises, is gently grazed with evening breeze.

The slow-burn sequence may not make sense to those who expect some kind of resolution out of it. The aforementioned opening scene is never referenced in the consequent parts of narrative. Nevertheless, the primary aim of this first part is to just give a broader sense of time. The second part opens in 2015 as the older Clara takes a casual stroll to the beach. The soothing flow of music, the elegant dance movements and the breeze of cool night is replaced by teeming, health and fitness conscious individuals. A group of people lay on the beach sand, hysterically laughing in a therapeutic session. The ‘shark’ signposts are placed all around, prohibiting people to take a dip.

Clara has a casual, non-flirting conversation with a handsome lifeguard Roberval, before traversing into the sea. After the bath, she cleans her hair in a shower placed on the roadside platform, opposite her apartment. She takes a look at her house. We get to look at the apartment from the outside, which is in the middle of intimidating high-rises. The transformation that has taken place in the three-and-a half decades is gently realized and alongside we get a sense of Clara’s inner life. She now lives alone, depending on the help of her elderly beloved house-keeper. We don’t get the reason behind her husband’s death (17 years ago). Inside her apartment, we see a poster of “Barry Lyndon”. She is the exact opposite of Mr. Lyndon, a man who gained and lost everything in his futile pursuit for money and prosperity.

Clara’s materials and memory

The living room is full of furniture and shelves of vinyl records, which somehow connects the past with present. The antique drawer chest is at the same place we last saw in 1980. In the earlier sequence, when Clara’s old aunt looks at the drawer chest, a memory about a raunchy sexual encounter is triggered. Towards the end, in a dream sequence, Clara sees the wooden chest drawer abandoned in the middle of an otherwise empty house. It could be taken as Clara’s fear of uncertain, shaky future. So, director Filho uses a simple piece of furniture (a witness to carnal pleasures among others) to ingeniously hint on the past, present and future of a space.

This sublime use of materials to evoke memory, passage of time, and sacredness of the past is done in many other sequences too. When Clara is interviewed by a local newspaper, she disdains the conventional form of questioning and starts narrating a story. She shows her interviewer the clipping of a December 1980 Los Angeles article, featuring an interview with John Lennon (weeks before his assassination). The article is tucked inside a record she found in a second-hand store. The interviewer blandly looks at Clara, unable to understand what this record and article means to this interview. The old woman is just ruminating on a potent connection she has with an object of rich heritage, which is defaced by modern innovations (mp3, streaming, etc).

On one hand, this scene sets up the reason behind Clara’s stubborn stand. On the other hand, from an allegorical perspective, the act of clinging to powerful heritage is in itself reflects as an act of protest against the corruptive, elite forces. Diego (Humberto Carrao), the arrogant, characterless entrepreneur sends off group to create ruckus in the apartment house above Clara’s. She plays a song at full volume, turning the music records into some sort of weapon (in the American continent, music often has been used as a tool for protest).

The brilliance of these sequences is that they aren’t pointed in single direction. They don’t withhold any didactic message or angry tone. It’s all used to provide naturalistic insights about Clara’s inner life. All these may make Aquarius sound like a film against modernity and a film for nostalgia. It definitely isn’t. Aquarius is a mere, eye-level observation of life. Clara is a woman who wants to preserve what’s her; she never wallows in nostalgia. Filho isn’t questioning the contemporary transformation in society. By observing Clara’s tenacity, he is wondering on why people aren’t staying true to themselves; yielding to perverted sense of growth and wealth (especially if we consider the massive corruption scandals erupting from Pernambuco’s state, which Clara fleetingly refers in the scene with the reporter friend).


The natural feel of family gathering

Director Filho may be accused of self-indulgence in the long drawn-out family gathering scenes. But, I felt an organic flow and beautiful emotions in those scenes. The confrontation between Clara and her daughter was one of the most emotionally resonant moments in the narrative. The difference in opinions never escalates into high-drama and it ends with well deserved tear-jerking gesture. In another extended scene, the Clara’s brother and his family sit around, looking at old album pictures. As Filho slowly lingers on this moment, the house-keeper Ladjane joins in and shows the photo of her deceased son (this brief moment resonates strongly because of the earlier birthday party scene).

The scene (which happens to be the last one of aptly titled 2nd chapter ‘Clara’s Love’) ends with Clara’s tearfully look at her beloved nephew and his girlfriend (this young girl chooses and plays a song which immediately connects Clara with her).Parallels could be drawn with this particular shot and the look Clara’s aunt gives in the movie’s 1st chapter. The shot seems to be an intimate snapshot of ageing, delivered without any sentimentality or condescension. Such unexpected, free-flowing humanistic portrayal are what I think bestows the soul for Aquarius.

The cool, detached sense of camera work (DPs Fabricio Tadeu and Pedro Sotero) makes us remain fascinated by Clara, in a non-sentimental manner. Director Filho unique use of space and sound reminds us of the masterful works from directors Antonoini, Tsai Ming-liang, etc. The city Recife is a significant character in the two of Filho’s movies. The camera hauntingly moves between spaces and barriers, constantly reflecting on the changing world. A sense of uneasy alienation pervades in Filho’s examination of the spaces. Nevertheless, he avoids a claustrophobic sense when filming Clara’s apartment. In fact, the apartment teems with life and light, absent in the towering buildings and polished roads. In few scenes, Filho cuts through the space (for eg, in the scene when Diego is first seen in the street outside as Clara calmly sleeps in the hammock, inside her house).

Even though, Aquarius is a part social realist movie, part character study, it is good to see such wonderful visual flourishes (diagonal splits).  This cutting through space technique shows the constant threat to Clara’s private space.Towards the end, intruders move in from the corner-point of a frame. These intruders, however, serve a different, good purpose. Director Filho in an interview states, “This is social realism that’s shot like De Palma and Vilmos Zsigmond”. We will run out of superlative adjectives when talking about the performance of veteran actress Sonia Braga. She blends in uncanny mixture of ferociousness, fragility and serenity. It’s the multi-faceted movie she deserves and at the same time, she’s the multi-faceted heroine this movie needs.

Aquarius (145 minutes) is a serene observation of a determined woman’s life, who literally and metaphorically swim among the sharks. The movie had the most emotionally satisfying climax I have witnessed in recent times.  We can’t help but cheer for the ‘thinking’ individual, who uses the weapon of powerful against themselves.


Interview with director Kleber Mendonca Filho —

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