Aquarius – Jerusalem 33

In his sophomore film, Kleber Mendonça Filho penetrates Brazilian falsely beautified society through Sônia Braga’s stunning performance.

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Of all the female characters met by the audience at the Jerusalem International Film Festival, the protagonist of Aquarius was probably the most unforgettable, the most iconic. And by far the toughest.
Clara, as Kleber Mendonça Filho christened her, has always been a brave and uncompromising woman. When diagnosed with breast cancer, she found enough energy in her family ties to keep herself from falling into despair. Once fully recovered, she managed to succeed both as a mother and as a music critic in her native Recife, during the last years of the Military Regime. We first get to know her in the striking intro of the Brazilian director’s second feature film, at a big party which celebrates her own survival, her clan’s relief and Aunt Lucia’s attachment to life and romance – 70 years old and the mind still set on her past lovers!

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But there’s no time to focus on this strangely sensuous night back in 1980: the young and short-haired woman (Barbara Colen) that we see surrounded by three little kids and a loving husband soon becomes Dona Clara (Sônia Braga). Today – Hoje, like the track performed by Taiguara – she is a wealthy retired journalist, a widow with long black hair and a big apartment in Aquarius, an imposing and totally empty seaside building in Boa Viagem. Many things have apparently changed, even though just on the surface: Brazil is now a free society, but at the mercy of the same fraudulent and greedy monopolists; love has lost its aura, but the need for intimacy is still strong; iPods have taken LP’s place in everyday life, but Antônio Carlos Jobim’s songs keep giving goosebumps.

Safe in the apartment where her children grew up and her married life started and ended, Dona Clara, like Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor, can’t – and doesn’t want to – get rid of her memories. When the wicked capitalistic menace knocks at her door, she declares war on its handsome and falsely polite representatives. Nobody is going to kick her out of Aquarius.

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After the positive reactions at the Cannes Film Festival, Aquarius premiered in Israel as one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year. All this praise was actually well deserved. Kleber Mendonça Filho, a former film critic whose stunning debut Neighboring Sounds (O Som ao Redor) won loads of awards in 2012, has in fact created something unique and extremely fascinating, a moving character study which sinuously turns into a rich and complex depiction of contemporary Brazil.
If Neighboring Sounds showed, through the arrival of a private security firm that changes the lives of the middle-class inhabitants of a suburban apartment building, a society incapable of freeing itself from its atavistic social problems and anxieties, Aquarius brilliantly uses a woman’s daily life to penetrate a society built on a destabilizing and contradictory mix of beauty and shit.

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Our heroine, portrayed by a marvelous Sônia Braga (Bruno Barreto’s Gabriela and Dona Flor, as well as the most renowned Brazilian soap opera diva), is always up there, on screen. The viewers follow her and lose themselves in a variety of long narrative digressions (sex, music, family gatherings) and dream sequences, while the property speculators, that want the only occupied apartment left in the old building by the Ocean, get more and more troublesome and the sense of paranoia grows, constantly bringing the movie back to the fight between the stubborn lady and her rapacious enemy.

Because what is really at stake is Dona Clara’s past. Aquarius is also a tale of ghosts and inescapable memories.

Massimo Lechi

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