By Adam Cook
Kleber Mendonça Filho is one of the most exciting filmmakers to emerge out of Brazil in recent memory. His 2012 debut, Neighboring Sounds, was a wholly original film about a wealthy neighborhood coping with the influence of a new security team patrolling the streets. The film’s sensual style gave it a unique feel. That sharp sensibility is again on display in his new film, Aquarius. Set in Recife, the film mostly takes place in the apartment of a woman named Clara. Beginning with a flashback to 1980 when Clara was young and starting to raise a family, the film moves to the present day where she is a widowed breast cancer survivor in her 60s, living alone aside from the help of a nanny. A retired music writer, Clara (played by Brazillian screen legend Sonia Braga in a remarkable performance) has lived most of her life in her beloved home across from the beach, surrounded with memories of loved ones and years gone by. Lonely but independent, and as spirited as ever, Clara is a strong woman in an age range not typically represented in cinema. The opening flashback introduces us to her as a hip audiophile, and one senses very little has changed.
When we first meet her in the present day, she’s being interviewed. The journalist admires her extensive record collection. “I love mp3s”, claims Clara with the opinion that what matters is the music—but she points to the power of objects, the way they freeze moments and memories in time and take on meaning. A record isn’t just a record, it’s representative of the day it was purchased, the times it’s been played. This is connected the film’s main Proustian theme of memory and how places and things can become our legacy, our way of remaining connected to our past. So when a hotshot young developer swings by and tries to force Clara out of the building, she stubbornly refuses, even as the rest of the tenants cash their cheques and pack their bags.
At the behest of those around her, she sticks to her guns, while also clinging to her memories and processing the transience of existence that perhaps she has been able to ignore with her feet landing in the same place each morning for the better part of her life. Modernity threatens her lifestyle and sense of self as she is deemed irrelevant in a country moving further into a capitalistic economic transition. Like a record replaced with an mp3. Filho’s brilliant direction turns Clara’s apartment into a rich setting that you wont want to leave any sooner than she does.
When the film premiered at Cannes, the cast and crew protested the Brazilian government and the rise to power of President Temer. Since then, the film has been overshadowed by controversy, as Brazil refused to submit the film to Oscars for consideration as Best Foreign Language film. However, the film has managed to do very well in its native country and has continued to premiere to critical acclaim at festivals across the world. Don’t miss Aquarius when it plays at the Vancity Theatre from November 18th to December 1st.