Aquarius Is an Understated Epic


Clara, the center of Kleber Mendonça Filho's Aquarius, is a 65-year-old woman who carries a proud history of political activism and intellectual work (a music critic, she authored a book about Heitor Villa-Lobos), but isn't quite ready for retirement yet. She's been so busy with her life that she hasn't noticed that the world around her has changed. As played by Sonia Braga she's a powerful presence, the kind of thoughtful but slightly larger-than-life role that acknowledges the actress' glamorous past even while making a break from it.

The title is the name of a beachfront apartment building where Clara lives, but its suggestion of late '60s optimism isn't accidental. A once fashionable address, the building has, after 30 years or so, lost all of its residents but Clara, the lone hold-out to a developer's plans to tear it down.

That conflict comes to dominate the last third of the film, but director Filho is in no hurry to get there. Aquarius is an understated epic; vulgar, nostalgic and reflective, it keeps a casual pace, slowing down to let Clara listen to a favorite old record (her vinyl collection is the envy of her friends and family), whether it's Villa-Lobos, Gilberto Gil or "Fat Bottomed Girls."

The film moves with the rhythm of everyday life, open to distractions, before gradually, almost sneakily revealing a more political turn. What at first seems like an exercise in nostalgia for an earlier era in Brazilian life becomes a pointed look at its current politics and brings back the fighter in Clara. Guided by Braga's exceptional presence, Aquarius becomes an odd kind of political drama, wistful and angry at once.

The political climate it condemns has extended beyond the screen. After the director and cast criticized the recent impeachment of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, Aquarius has become a political issue itself, with right-wing commentators calling for its boycott.