Do you remember the first time you heard your favourite song? How you couldn’t believe you hadn’t heard it before, because you knew you already loved it?
The opening sequence of Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius manages to capture a little of that feeling. With a prelude set in the past featuring protagonist Dona Clara as a much younger woman (played by Sonia Braga) in the 80s. Crammed into a car parked by the beach with her friends, Clara tells everyone she wants to put on a song. She pops in a tape, turns it all the way up and out comes Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. The old song suddenly feels fresh because the scene is so authentic – the characters’ reactions to hearing this pop classic for the first time are believable.
The film is made up of moments like these, poetic sequences to do with time, showing the way the present is affected by the past while the future looms, threatening to change everything.
The plot of the film takes place in the present day, centred on Dona Clara, now a retired music critic at her home in Brazil. She lives by herself in an apartment block and is the sole resident of the entire building. Due to a new development project, all of the residents have sold their apartments and moved out, while the construction company has plans to knock down the building. That is, just as soon as they can get Dona Clara out.
This leads to a series of hostile encounters between Clara and Diego,the man fronting the project (played by Humberto Carrão). As well as Dona Clara and her children, who hate to see their mother in an unsafe ‘ghost building’ as her daughter calls it. The large cast all pull their weight admirably, but this is really Sonia Braga’s movie. Braga’s performance is so good, I can hardly find the right adjectives to do it justice. She embodies the character in every turn of phrase and flicker of expression. Painting a nuanced portrait of a character who, in other hands, might come across as superficial. At times I lamented having to read subtitles, missing the subtle narrative playing out on Braga’s face.
It is a face with which the director’s camera is clearly enamoured, and rightfully so. Mendonça Filho alternates between sweeping shots of the city and lingering close ups, linking Clara’s love for her hometown with the private anguish she feels towards her family when they fail to understand why she won’t back down.
For all of its marvellous touches, it is a difficult film to recommend. At two hours and twenty minutes it could test the average viewer’s patience. There’s nothing inherently thrilling about a conflict with a construction company that progresses mostly in conversation. However, it’s the way the story weaves in themes of memory and of time passed, how Braga invests so much into he character , how patient Mendonça Filho is with his camera, and how intelligent his script is, that makes the film so bloody great. It’s probably not a film for everyone, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go see it.
Tom Bensley is a freelance writer in Melbourne who reviews anything he attends, watches or reads. It’s a compulsion, really. Follow him @TomAliceBensley.
Aquarius is now showing in cinemas around Melbourne