The political controversy which took place following the premiere of Kleber Mendonca Filho’s superb sophomore film had a rather unfortunate hobbling effect on its initial emergence. The Neighboring Sounds (2012) director broke into the Cannes Main Competition in 2016 with Aquarius and utilized the red-carpet premiere, alongside his cast, to protest the recent coup d’état which had taken place in Brazil only days before, which resulted in the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. A prominent Brazilian film critic was vocally opposed to Filho’s outspokenness, so it was no surprise when the new government placed the said critic on their Oscars selection committee, a voting body which declined to select the film despite rave reviews out of Cannes, as well as a career highlight for Sonia Braga.
The dismal awards handed out by the George Miller led jury at the festival didn’t help the film’s prospects since Filho left empty-handed. US distributor Vitagraph Films gave their title a limited theatrical release in October of 2016, where it only soaked up two-hundred-and-eighty-five-thousand at the box office, while streaming service Netflix released it not long after.
Clara (Braga) is a 65 year old widow, a mother of three successful children and a retired but well-regarded music critic. Born into a prodigious family in Recife, she has a rich history wrapped up in her beautiful apartment located in the two-story beach-side apartment complex known as the Aquarius. Located in the upper-class Avenida Boa Viagem section, the property, which has existed since the 1940s, has been bought out by a company which has major plans of renovation. As such, all of her neighbors have accepted the generous offer provided by the company except for Clara, which has angered a lot of people who can’t collect their agreed proceeds until she’s out of the building. Her comfortable existence is suddenly shadowed by growing anxiety, leading Clara’s routine to be interrupted, causing a reevaluation of things and people she holds dear.
As the resilient and fiercely independent Clara, Sonia Braga is magnetic, recalling the visceral capacity of Anna Magnani as her anger intensifies. Filho’s film is a significant homage to her talents, and there’s never a moment when Aquarius underwhelms, whether a series of comfortable interactions with those whose company enjoys, such as the local life guard, her nephew who shares a similar passion for music, her housekeeper, or more vibrant moments where Clara invites a young gigolo to her home after she peeks at the blaring orgy going on upstairs as an attempt to intimidate.
Our personal space and how we control it, which includes who and what we let into it, becomes the overriding motif of Aquarius. Details about a sticky fingered maid, along with other peripheral details, all seem calibrated to underline the notion of privilege and control, such as who has the ability to even consider turning down an offer such as the one presented by the disingenuous Diego (Humberto Carrao). And this is exactly the point—how we’re able to control the comfort of our space dictates (and dominates) quality of life. Clara’s love for music is also used to solidify these themes. Among the many tunes in the colorful soundtrack, two tracks by Queen stick out, including in the 1980 set opening sequence, and then beautiful use of “Fat Bottom Girls,” which she uses to drown out the sound of obnoxious carousing, reclaiming control of her environment.
Music is also used as a vehicle to collapse time and memory, which relates to the film’s display of objects as powerful instruments of transportation. During a dedication to Clara’s aunt in the first segment’s birthday celebration, the woman lapses into a memory of a sexual conquest on the cabinet located behind the orator. Filho proves his point repeatedly with the same cabinet, figuring prominently in several frames, a reminder which simultaneously reverts the film’s audience to these same memories from earlier in the film. As such, the notion of ‘time travel’ is conveyed as an invisible yet intrinsic aspect of human experience, which can also be shared, looped, and endlessly continued.
Technological advances in how music is shared also becomes an interesting sub-tangent within the film, as Clara is grilled in an interview about her comfort with MP3s due to her acknowledged collection of LPs. Her answer is an astute one—the method by which we continue to experience music is not so much a problem, but something tangible is lost when these progenitors of memory lose their aspect of physicality.
But where this drifting narrative really starts to take shape is in the third part, “Clara’s Cancer,” where tension begins to breed the threat of danger to Clara. There’s a significant reveal best left undiscussed prior to seeing Aquarius, since it’s devious and chilling, particularly with how Filho visually unveils it. Additionally, this paves the way for an absolutely superb finale and a phenomenal closing line from Braga.
While Braga and Filho were two of the most obscured underdogs of 2016, Kino Lorber at last comes to the rescue with a Blu-ray release. Presented in 2.35:1 with 5.1 Surround Sound, picture and sound quality are appropriate in the first home entertainment version of the title. Filho provides optional audio commentary, while Kino Lorber provides some additional extra features, such as deleted scenes and cast and crew interviews.
Three deleted scenes (just over two minutes of screen time) are included.
Interview w/Kleber Mendonca Filho and Sonia Braga:
Kino includes a nine-minute interview with the director and star, who discuss the development of the project.
This eighteen-minute feature documents some behind-the-scenes footage of the making of Aquarius.
Short Films by Kleber Mendonca Filho:
Excitingly, Kino Lorber includes three short films from Filho in the release—2004’s “Green Vinyl,” 2005’s “Household Appliances,” and 2015’s “The World Cup in Recife.”
Braga is daunting in Filho’s sublime sophomore effort, which asserts his auteurhood as one of Brazil’s most important contemporary filmmakers.
Film Review ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆