“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned” — Maya Angelou
What’s in a home? It’s a place where you gather things and make memories, sure. But it’s also a calming environment that contains part of who you are, as it reflects back to you the experiences –lived and accumulated– that make you feel whole. This place, a home, has value unto itself that is relative to oneself. When Clara, played wonderfully by the legendary Brazilian actress Sonia Braga, is offered a handsome offer to buy her home from an unknown company, she refuses to consider the offer. The price tag, after all, has little to offer in respect to her home’s more inherent value. In Aquarius, the exploration of worth versus value is played out beautifully with strong performances and a directorial eye that captures so many complexities within one character and the socioeconomic ecosystem she inhabits.
Clara is satisfied with herself and comfortable in her own skin, at a level that would make anyone long for that kind of restfulness. After a long life, a loving family and a battle with breast cancer, she has come to understand herself and what she wants from life. What Braga and Director Kleber Mendonça Filho do so well with Aquarius is develop a character that is not only multi-dimensional and flawed but also so relatable in that quest for oneness and belonging that we all carry. Mendonça Filho has a patient eye and is able to take Braga’s open heart and turn it into a rich performance. Through her eyes we get a glimpse of racial, gender and class inequality in Brazil via a performance that reverberates with today’s climate in the rest of the world.
When the camera lingers on Clara, her head is up high. Braga’s delivery is one that builds and takes time to evolve. For the 65-year-old music critic there is an intrinsic joy in life and the little things that make it worth living. Music is one of those elements in her life that have not only endured but constitute an extension of her character. Mendonça Filho gives us some of the music you’d expect from a Brazilian film, there’s the bossa nova and some dance tunes; but the edge Clara has comes through from early on as she blasts Queen’s famous track “Another One Bites the Dust” during the first few scenes of the film. There is also some Tropicalia, courtesy of Gilberto Gil, a music movement famous for representing the political opposition during times of military authoritarianism. Music is part of Clara –with a soft and a feisty edge. Even when her son tells her about his love affair, she advises him to play some Maria Bethânia.
The portrait of Clara in Aquarius is so compelling that it makes for an interesting journey. Mendonça Filho takes his time to show the complexity of this woman through a series of vignettes early on that include her younger years, her family and her battle with cancer. Later on, Mendonça Filho is not afraid to explore her sexuality, her relationship with her late husband and the remaining friendships that keep her an active woman. There are expansive shots that suggest she has become part of the environment she inhabits; she has a strong relationship to the place she calls home, beyond her apartment including her neighborhood and the people she has seen grow up in it.
Although poised, strong and beautiful from the inside out, our heroine is up against some of the crudest forces one can encounter. The insidious and persistent attempts to dispossess this woman in order to make a quick buck can only be described as predatory capitalism. The complete lack of concern for human welfare and even an insistent attempt to get rid of people as obstacles is what the ugly side of capitalism can look like, especially in very unequal societies. The people behind the corporation do not play fair, Mendonça Filho makes it clear that this is not a subtle commentary but also a wake up call for anyone that ever doubts their ability to fight back.
Aquarius is a timely film, given the still wide inequality in Brazil, with people who in the past few years have resorted to fighting back hikes in the cost of living, taxation and overall increasing levels of insecurity. Nonetheless, audiences need not be aware of Brazil’s political climate to be able to openly contemplate the questions of value versus economic worth. This is an accomplished film, and the fact that at the center of this story there is a woman in her golden years makes all the difference. The entire outrage that builds throughout the film culminates in a powerful declaration of strength. Clara’s journey is thoroughly inspiring yet open-ended, providing room for the audience to decide whether following this heroin is within their political wheelhouse.
Aquarius runs 142 minutes, is in Brazilian Portuguese with English subtitles and is unrated (it has some adult themes). The film opens in South Florida on Nov. 4 and will be playing at Tower Theater Miami, the Coral Gables Art Cinema, O Cinema Miami Beach, and The Living Room Theatres. Braga will be present at the Tower Theater on Friday for the first two screenings of the film (details here). Braga will follow the 5:45 p.m. screening with a Q&A and then introduce the following 9 p.m. screening. The following night she will do the same at the 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. screenings at the Coral Gables Art Cinema (details here). For nationwide screenings please click here. A screener link and images were provided by Vitagraph Films for the purposes of this review.