Kleber Mendonça Filho’s AQUARIUS is unthinkable without Sonia Braga’s fiery, dignified performance

There’s a lot in common between Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça FIlho’s anxiously-awaited second fiction feature, Aquarius, and a couple of other films that also saw their premieres in the 2016 Cannes festival. I’m thinking particularly of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle and Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, films that are also anchored around strong women and strong actresses. In many ways, all three films are off-centred women’s pictures that refuse to be bound by the limitations and conventions of whatever genre they’re working in (and none of them can fit peacefully any one specific genre); they’re also love letters to their actresses, that aim to give them as much time and space as possible for a character to emerge. Peculiarly enough, only one of them was actually directed by a woman, and Maren Ade’s film is in fact named after the alter ego of its male character — but either way, these are films that are pretty much impossible to conceive without these actresses.

Aquarius is a love letter to Sonia Braga as she learns to navigate the pitfalls of ageing, drawing on the Brazilian actress’s near mythical status in her native country to suggest a symbol of resistance, integrity and courage in the face of adversity. Her Clara, a retired music writer who refuses to give in to a construction company and move out of the beach-side condominium that’s always been her home, is not afraid of self-doubt; neither is she afraid of passing as icy, stubborn, unpleasant. As a cancer survivor, Clara will stand up for herself and what she believes in, regardless of what anyone else thinks or how hard it may prove to be; Braga, who has seldom had such a nuanced character to work with, rewards her director’s gift of a living, breathing, thinking, fully-fleshed out woman with a fiery and dignified performance that erupts, cathartically, in the final moments of the film. In that sense, Braga’s performance is so much the soul of Aquarius that it could not exist with any other actress in its lead, as the character fits the person in more than just bespoke tailoring.

Aquarius, moving back and forth between Clara’s difficulties with the building owners and her daily routines with family and friends, builds an impressionistic accumulation of details that reveals as much about its character as about what surrounds her — and, like the director’s acclaimed debut, 2012’s Neighboring Sounds, paints a remarkably attentive picture of modern-day Brazil and its constant social struggles, and the way class and money underlie pretty much every single aspect of contemporary life in the country.

All of this almost makes you overlook that Aquarius gets occasionally too enamoured of Braga, and loses itself in sprawling, superfluous narrative tangents that enrich the film’s tapestry of setting and character, but seem at some point to be merely reiterating what has already been said before. While none of it is truly pointless, that sprawl can become aimless if not properly harnessed. This is not an affectation but an integral part of Mendonça Filho’s approach to storytelling, as seen on Neighboring Sounds; but as Aquarius closes in on one particular character while Neighboring Sounds was more of a mosaic/ensemble piece, the new film comes off, paradoxically, as slightly more unbalanced.

Length, of course, is part of the toolkit of the modern auteur — you can explain away non-standard lengths as a means to explore alternative approaches to conventional narrative, and many directors have in fact used it to their advantage (I’m particularly thinking of Abdellatif Kechiche, whose Secret of the Grain, also two and a half hours long, pretty much set the recent gold standard). But not everyone can pull it off like Chantal Akerman (another director much interested in unconventional portraits of women), who made a point of making the passage of time felt in her films.

Toni Erdmann, for instance, works at nearly three hours because long takes, observation and expectation are central to its dramatic approach, and what Ade is interested in is less what Peter Simonischek’s practical prankster does and more how Sandra Hüller’s all-business-woman responds to it; but at some point in Aquarius, you start wondering whether “more” isn’t really “less”, whether Mendonça Filho has taken on more than he can deal with, whether this combination of a portrait of a strong-willed woman and a picture of modern-day Brazil starts working against the film’s dramatic strength.

But, ultimately, the film’s strengths much outweigh its faults. And it’s in the story of a woman coming to terms with her life and the world around her, in its unmitigated, arresting love for Clara/Sonia (and, in this case, is there really a difference?), that Aquarius is at its best and Kleber Mendonça Filho confirms why he’s one of the few contemporary directors you should always keep an eye on.

Directed and written by Kleber Mendonça Filho
Starring Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Irandhir Santos and Humberto Carrão
BR/FR, 2016, 146 minutes
(SBS Distribution)


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