Something's rotten in Recife. One wouldn't know it from the series of gorgeous black-and-white photographs that open Kleber Mendonça Filho's Aquarius. Birds-eye-view perspectives of the Brazilian coastal city capture a collision of architecture and nature, selling nostalgic comfort as an attainable commodity. But the social reality for this community (and Brazil as a nation) is far more contradictory and nuanced, defined by the inevitable ebbs and flows of history repeating.
Clara (Sônia Braga), a retired music critic and breast cancer survivor, has lived in the same apartment for more than four decades, building an intimate family legacy. She knows every inch of this place by heart, including the emotional terrain it represents. During a brief but powerful prologue set in 1980, we sense her resilience, discerning taste and deep heritage as a young woman.
After a drive on the beach that features Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," Clara returns home to a flood of relatives celebrating the 70th birthday party of matriarch Aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez). Memorable speeches invite forgotten memories to come crashing home. In this place that means something different to many people, Filho's sweeping camera curiously—even drunkenly—maneuvers through corridors and rooms hoping to discover new details.
While the apartment complex feels like a beehive of activity at this point, much has changed once Aquarius jumps to the present day. A construction firm with ambitious renovation plans has bought out every other resident, leaving Clara surrounded by empty units. Life somehow still makes sense here, even if loneliness has replaced laughter in the air. Corporate lackeys visit her often trying to finalize a sale, but she defiantly refuses. This stalemate leads to a series of passive aggressive standoffs that grow increasingly destructive and disturbing.
Aquarius uncovers the ways in which our personal lives can become necessarily political in the face of change. One drifting long take encapsulates this theme beautifully: As ocean waves crash in the distance and street activity bustles below, Clara sleeps quietly in her hammock only to hear the approaching footsteps of men with pens. Egregious interruption and intimidation ensue, tactics that represent the various tentacles of corruption and collusion in modern day Brazil.
Clara recognizes the spreading rot of corruption even when her children and colleagues do not. She stubbornly stands her ground, and in turn becomes one of the great modern symbols of human resistance against political apathy. Braga gives the character an indestructible sense of self, showcasing a range of emotions that defy easy categorization.
Filho's interest in the dichotomy between absence and presence is palpable. This is best on display in the offhanded way one arrogant young construction executive (Humberto Carrão) speaks to Clara about her "ghost building" in the past tense. Just a few perfectly placed words threaten to erase an entire life's worth of collected memories, heartaches and smiles. She responds with a stirring indictment of what he represents for Brazil's future: "Your character is money."
The slow infestation of greed has been spreading for decades, and Aquarius isn't naïve to this fact. But it views Clara's individual struggle as a tipping point capable of inspiring a collective stand. Escalations perpetrated by the construction company might be aimed at her, but the impending impact reverberates outward, transcending boundaries of class and community. Once others begin to realize this fact, their fear of retribution begins to evaporate.
Aquarius opens Friday, Oct. 28, at Angelika Carmel Mountain Cinemas, and it deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Like Fehlo's equally brilliant Neighboring Sounds , it is a film of densely layered spaces (that Barry Lyndon poster!) and rhythmic audio patterns. Yet the style would be nothing without Clara, an indestructible woman determined to keep the past from being eroded by upright parasites. If subtle subversions go unnoticed, then only the path of most resistance becomes appropriate. Her final act of protest gives new meaning to the Manny Farber-coined "termite art."