Aquarius & Brazilian Cinema Today

Rebeca Maia - April 10, 2017

In his most recent movie Aquarius, Kléber Mendonça Filho summoned one of the most well-known Brazilian actresses to deliver a very accurate portrait of the Brazilian middle class today. On the surface, it might just seem like a real estate feud; yet, at its heart, it is a charged social and political commentary unleashed in a very timely manner, in light of political developments that have taken place in Brazil last year.

Clara, played by the incomparable Sonia Braga, has pledged to live in her apartment until the day she dies. Aquarius, which is the name of the building that grants the film its title, is a two-story building that has survived the waves of gentrification that swept Avenida Boa Viagem and its privileged view by the sea during the mid-to-late 1990’s. The film’s main storyline concerns a construction company named Bonfim Imobiliária and its attempts to displace Clara in order to buy the property and construct a high-end apartment complex in its place, and it is this dispute that serves as a springboard for the movie’s examination of ageism, sexism and capitalist enterprises in the country’s capital today.

Aquarius explores prevalent power relations that date back to the colonial period of Brazil, a theme which has also pervaded Mendonça Filho’s acclaimed Neighbouring Sounds. Even Clara, who so vehemently rebels against the system, falls prey to their influence as she receives help from a well-connected friend of hers in her quest to dethrone the Bonfim construction company. This unbalanced power dynamic permeates many of the interactions on the screen, highlighting how these lingering, outdated structures of power still operate in more ways than imaginable in contemporary Brazilian society. Unlike his previous endeavor, Aquarius makes more pointed accusations, containing some form of critique in most, if not all, of its scenes. Whereas Neighbouring Sounds consists more of a glimpse into the lives of Recife’s middle class, issuing its criticism in a more understated way, Aquarius does not shy away from its anti-corruption mission, largely channeling its power through Braga’s strong female lead.

Clara’s struggle is symbolized every time she touches her hair, tying it up and down as if to emphasize her battle and eventual defeat of cancer. No wonder the first chapter of the movie is entitled “Clara’s Hair;” it is her way of telling her story to the world and affirming that she survived. In Aquarius, Clara swims with sharks both literally and metaphorically, when bathing in the shark-infested waters of Boa Viagem Beach, or battling real estate moguls trying to displace her.

Her apartment, the physical reason behind the disagreement, has stood as an ever-present witness of Clara’s life, serving as the backdrop in which she raised her children, was diagnosed and treated for cancer, and saw her husband pass away. Almost a temple of sorts, it houses a number of personal treasures of her career as a music critic and devotion as a music lover. In one scene, she explains her persistence in collecting physical artifacts in an age where streaming services are the norm by ways of a John Lennon album and a ripped news article found inside the vinyl cover. The story detailed Lennon’s plans for the future few days before his death in 1980, making Clara claim that it was a “message in a bottle.” The apartment, like the building in which it is located, is a relic of times past. Clara’s children have long moved out of their home to start ones of their own; Clara survived cancer; and her husband has been gone for long, yet she can’t seem to get away from her surroundings. There’s a certain nostalgia for calmer times permeating the movie from the beginning, in which old pictures of a peaceful, less populated Avenida Boa Viagem stand for the film’s opening scenes.

Yet, its critique of greediness in the real estate industry is only one of many ways in which Aquarius rebels against convention. Reverting the male gaze also ranks among one of the film’s main priorities, a commitment that is directly married to the deconstruction of ageism through Clara and her friends’ attempts at finding love post-widowhood and divorce. This commitment is announced from the start, through Tia Lúcia’s intimate flashbacks while her family pays her a tribute at her 70th birthday party. Womanhood is given the agency it deserves, and age is not an obstacle in the liberation of the female bodies on the screen. In fact, the only time Clara is displayed fully naked in the movie, there is an intentional focus on her surgery scar on her breast rather than any other body part.

Braga’s Clara is, without a doubt, the backbone of the story; her mesmerizing presence on screen breathes life into a storyline that could have lost most of its sharpness if taken on by someone else of less renown. Unfortunately, the movie received an 18+ rating in Brazil, which was very unexpected considering other movies that had similar types of explicit content, such as Tatuagem, were consistently rated as 16+. Many speculate this was a way for the government to retaliate against the cast and crew’s anti-impeachment political protest on Cannes’ red carpet last year. Gladly, the movie is now available for streaming on Netflix, allowing it to gain some of the traction it might have lost from the ratings and other distribution problems.

Overall, Aquarius encapsulates many of the features that are representative of what Brazilian cinema has come to be in the last couple of years. It takes place in a big city (that is not Rio or São Paulo), focuses on an in-depth exploration of one character rather than a collective, and contains marked stylistic ticks from its director. Historically, Brazilian film has been more constrained by geographical boundaries than by generational ones. That is, its national production is more easily categorized into typical regional backdrops – such as the favela and the sertão (which is sort of the Brazilian equivalent of the American western) – than by specific stylistic conventions of a certain era.

Following the development of some of Brazil’s most well-known pictures, such as the often cited City of God and the Elite Squad movies, we see somewhat of a reorganization in the country’s cinematic landscape. Today, more independent films steer away from the more remote sceneries of the favela and the sertão, gravitating not only toward urban centers of the country but also moving further away from the Rio-São Paulo axis. Therefore, we see new cinematic hubs arise, spearheaded by the states of Pernambuco (where Aquarius takes place), Ceará and Minas Gerais. Contrary to some of these action-packed, fast-paced productions, directors today seem to have more creative freedom geographically and, perhaps as a consequence, thematically. It might be too soon to characterize and limit this new wave of young directors, especially considering the thematic variety of their contributions over the past couple of years. Yet, as these productions are more widely recognized by the international festival scene, these films might gain more space in national and foreign theaters, hopefully reaching curious audiences not exclusively through Netflix.

Rebeca Maia

Rebeca Maia is currently a junior majoring in Communication with a minor in Consumer Psychology. Before Penn, she lived in Recife, Brazil, where she was born and raised. Some of her favorite directors include Pedro Almodóvar, Paolo Sorrentino and Richard Linklater.