If you lived right along the sea in Brazil’s state of Pernambuco, in the pretty upper-crust beach area of Boa Viagem, your life, one would imagine, would be pretty chill. That’s how one would come into thinking about Clara, a 65-year old widow and retired music critic who was born into a pretty traditional, well-to-do family. But instantly, what’s at the surface isn’t exactly how life plays out for Clara, and from the end of Aquarius’ opening 1980 flashback scene, the viewer knows that the film they walked in on is going to be a complicated, and eye-opening journey.
But yes, Clara’s days revolve around now leisurely activities: listening to vinyl, drinking wine, having food prepared by her dutiful maid Ledjune, trying to swim in the rough ocean tide, and wishing her children and nephews would visit more. Yet, with her being the holdout tenant in the titular apartment building on Boa Viagem Avenue, the strong-willed (see: stubborn) Clara is intent on preserving her family condo, despite the efforts of the wealthy real estate developers plans to demolish the Aquarius for their own new building.
While this battle of wills, a personal cold war of sorts, is the underlying plot of Aquarius, Clara’s present day dealings with her family, still dealing with unsettling aspects of their past, including her cancer that nearly destroyed the family 35 years since, is what is really the heart of the film. No, it’s more than that – it’s Sônia Braga.
While non-Spanish/Portuguese speaking American audiences have only gotten smatterings of this magnetic actor in the past decade plus, the great Brazilian star best known here for 1985’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, her present work on the Netflix series Luke Cage (as Claire Temple’s diner owner mother), and to 80’s kids like me as Theo’s teacher Ms. Westlake on The Cosby Show, is a vastly underused actress. She is no less than transfixing on screen, making director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s dynamic storytelling style, especially his choice of moving the camera about in key moments to vital, often overlooked spaces to expand the story, that more unforgettable.
Although in less of it that Braga, the there are two other standout actors among a bevy of strong performances. Maeve Jenkings plays Clara’s only daughter Ana Paula, a headstrong, recently divorced woman intent on facing the realities of life that she feels her mother rebels against. Jenkings is a rising star in the film community having recently co-starred in Gabriel Mascaro’s transformative Brazilian modern-cowboy film Neon Bull, which we reviewed at this year’s New Directors/New Films festival, as well as Filho’s previous feature, Neighboring Sounds. Her contrast against Clara’s demeanor, coupled with an also embracing mother-daughter relationship, is a true highlight – these two actresses work brilliantly with each other.
The other is young actor Humberto Carrão, who plays overeager real estate developer Diego, the passive-aggressive leader of Clara’s eviction. With what Clara accurately describes as a “shit-eating grin” (which sounds even funnier and stronger with Braga’s pronounced Brazilian accent) Diego starts as an charming and amusing lad and by film’s end, well, you should see for yourself (spoiler: it ain’t’ cute).
Aquarius is a must-see at the New York Film Festival, and wherever it lands afterwards.
Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho
Brazil/France, 2016, 142 min.
Portuguese with English subtitles
Series: MAIN SLATE
Q&A’s with Kleber Mendonça Filho & Sônia Braga
Screenings and Venues:
Sunday, October 9th, 8:30pm at Alice Tully Hall
Tuesday, October 11th, 6:30pm at Francesca Beale Theater
The 54th New York Film Festival runs from September 30 – October 16 in New York City.