When it comes to Brazilian film I must admit that my experience is largely limited to the great 2002 film City of God, which I’m on record as saying is one of the best movies of the 21st century but which seemed to be both the start and end of a one film revolution in the country. Of course that is likely my own ignorance talking: looking through my personal database that may actually be the one and only true Brazilian film that I’ve even seen (the only other films that came close were the foreign produced Black Orpheus and Kiss of the Spider Woman). I’m not exactly sure why that is given that my intake of films from other South American countries like Argentina and Chile has been, while still limited, at least a bit wider than that. Among the Brazilian films I’m managed to miss out on was a 2012 film called Neighboring Sounds, which has developed quite a following in the time since then. That film was the feature debut of a director named Kleber Mendonça Filho, who is becoming one of the most prominent (if domestically controversial) filmmakers from that country. Given that I neglected to catch up with that earlier film I thought it would be a good idea to catch his latest, and much buzzed about, follow-up Aquarius right out the gate.
Aquarius is a character study of a woman in her 60s named Dona Clara (Sônia Braga), who lives in an old condo building near a beach in the city of Recife and has been living there for well over thirty years. As the film opens she is the last remaining tenant in the building with everyone else having sold their apartments to a development company who plans to remodel the entire building and re-sell the rooms at a higher price. They have offered Dona Clara with a very generous offer above market value for her to sell, but she has steadfastly refused to entertain this offer and plans to stay in her apartment until she dies. From there we get a passive aggressive standoff of sorts between Dona Clara and Diego (Humberto Carrão), the representative of the development company.
Aquarius has generated a lot of controversy in its home country, but seemingly less for its actual content and more from acts of activism on the part of its cast and crew in the wake of recent political turmoil in the country. This is ironic because there’s not a lot of evidence of turmoil in the movie. I’m no expert on Brazil but my understanding is that they were looking like they were on a big upswing for a while there only to run into all kinds of strife that rained on their parade right as they were about to host the Olympics (which had seemed like a good idea back when they were on that upswing). This film seems like it was conceived back when they were still ascending and is a film that is perhaps wondering what the price of all their progress was. In this sense it shares something of a thematic similarity with another recent film from a BRIC country: Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart, which is something of a rumination on the drawbacks of China’s turn towards western ways of doing thing.
Then again, if the film’s intent was to suggest that Brazil should think twice before paving over the old in favor of the new it certainly doesn’t go out of its way to drive that message home. We certainly get a good idea of why Dona Clara would like her apartment and the lifestyle it brings, but it doesn’t really explain in too much detail why she sees it as a landmark worth defending. Is it perhaps just a matter of sentiment? That she simply wants to preserve the sentiments of thirty years of living there? I don’t know, that just seems like quite the first world problem to me. The film certainly positions Dona Clara as a bit of an underdog against this coldly calculating land developer, but it takes quite a bit of privilege to be able to turn down two million reals just because you like the view and have some nice memories of a place. Some of the films better scenes are the ones where Dona Clara is passive aggressively sparing with the developers’ representative and I maybe would have liked it if we’d gotten a more nuanced battle between the two where the developer gets a few more words in edgewise about the value of preserving the old vs. making way for the new.
I am perhaps getting a little bit too deep into the assumption that this is meant to be a thematic/political film when it is perhaps better appreciated as a character study, but even then the film only does so much for me. Dona Clara is certainly interesting in that she’s an older woman who has been largely undefeated by the challenges in her life and has remained a fairly hip 60-something with her record collection and whatnot but she didn’t quite strike me as a wildly unique or fascinating person despite Sônia Braga’s best efforts, at least not to the point where simply watching her live her life would be enough to carry a movie. Kleber Mendonça Filho visual sensibilities seem to be solid but not quite unique enough to completely hold my attention and this movie is not exactly the most fast paced thing you’re likely to see either. The movie has been picked up by Netflix and will likely be debuting on that platform soon but I don’t think that’s necessarily the best environment to be watching it on. I can definitely see myself having lost patience with it a lot faster if I was at home and surrounded by distractions. I don’t know, I’m wondering if I’m missing something with this one. The movie certainly walks and talks like a noteworthy movie but I’m not quite seeing the point to it.