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Review: Aquarius

(Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil/France, Opening October 21)

Clara, the resplendent 65-year-old protagonist of Aquarius, is destined to take her place among cinema’s most valiant and tenacious heroines. From her sensuous, Bond Girl–like emergence from the ocean, to her morning exercise complete with taekwondo moves, Clara (Sônia Braga) conveys a warrior spirit even through her most ordinary actions. A widow and retired music critic, she leads a simple and leisurely existence in the Brazilian coastal town of Recife, immersed in lustful memories summoned by the tunes of her youth and the sunlight that shines through the large windows of her almost century-old apartment overlooking the beach. Engrossed in this luminous daydream, one could wish for Clara’s placid routine to constitute the entire film, but director Kleber Mendonça Filho has a trenchant tale of corporate malfeasance in store beneath his sensitively drawn portrait of an aging woman.

Within the increasingly brutal context of urban transformation, Clara is continually harassed by a malicious construction company that plans to erect a luxury condominium in place of her building, a graceful walk-up called Aquarius. All the other tenants, duped through hefty checks and fantasies of upmarket life, have vacated the premises, but Clara is intent on staying, even if this means battling against rapacious entrepreneurs for the rest of her days. Her grown-up kids insist that she accept the offer, implying that this would also secure their own livelihood, but Clara rebukes them for agreeing to give up their home—and their childhood—so easily. For Clara, keeping her apartment does not just entail preserving her habitat, but protecting her personal history, the record of her life—which happens to be intrinsically linked to every component of this place, from her beloved collection of vinyls to a wooden cabinet that once belonged to her role model, the elegant and emancipated Aunt Lucia (first glimpsed in the film’s opening sequence).

A former film critic, the 47-year-old Mendonça has been devotedly recording the workings of his hometown Recife for nearly two decades of filmmaking. The product of an artistic journey that has produced a handful of experimental shorts and a feature-length documentary, his debut fiction feature Neighboring Sounds (2012) was an ingeniously crafted and deliciously manic meditation on surveillance and paranoia, set in a wealthy apartment block of Recife that served as a microcosm of the country through the anxieties that permeated it. With Aquarius, the filmmaker reaffirms his desire to address the contemporary tensions of Brazil, but does not ascribe explicit political ambitions to his film. Rather, he seems to be one of those artists primarily drawn to story and character, whose uncompromising humanism makes their work inherently political today.

With an eye for detail and a taste for dramatic escalation, Mendonça reveals how far corporations are willing to go to obtain compliance. Despite being put through horrendous trials like the dumping of excrement inside her building, Clara does not capitulate, emerging as a symbol of resistance from her clash with barbaric forces of capitalism. A spirited filmmaker, Mendonça never imbues his narrative with darkness. Unembellished yet jovial, Aquarius is deep down a celebration of life—a life filled with invigorating Queen songs, Dionysian girls’ nights out, and loving family reunions. Although reminiscent of social realist movies by way of its premise, Aquarius draws on the color palette and mood of 1970s American cinema, the vibrant and lascivious films of Robert Altman and Brian De Palma, which the cinephile director grew up watching. But most memorable of all is the ravishing Braga’s magnetic and unflinching performance. Achieving an uncanny blend of fragile serenity and ferocious intensity, Braga embodies a woman of all seasons: a poised and affectionate grandmother as much as she is a ruthless and sultry warrior. This icon of Brazilian cinema abandons herself to Mendonça’s camera with the generosity and enthusiasm of an actress who has been waiting for this role her entire life, and in the process lets us into Clara’s, and her own, multifaceted and inspiring soul.

Yonca Talu is a filmmaker living in New York. She grew up in Istanbul and recently graduated from NYU Tisch.