Aquarius, the new film from Brazilian critic-turned-director Kleber Mendonça Filho, sells the battle for redevelopment of an apartment complex in Recife, Brazil as nothing less than a battle for the soul of a nation. To the film’s great credit, even the least interested in urbanism among us will buy it; bravura filmmaking is bravura filmmaking any way you slice it.
The Aquarius, the building that lends its name to the film’s title, is unassuming both inside and out—luxury Northern-Virginia tower block it ain’t—though it isn’t lacking for personality. Since walls can only talk in the figurative sense, we learn about the building’s history from Clara (Sonia Braga), a resident of the Aquarius of more than 30 years. At 65 Clara has experienced the broad sweep of life’s joys and sorrows under the the Aquarius’s roof: she’s celebrated with family both close and far, survived breast cancer, lost her husband to an early death, watched her children grow old and leave the nest, renovated the space into a home for the record collection she’s amassed through the years as a music critic and lover of culture.
Cosmetic changes notwithstanding, Clara’s apartment has held onto a certain character through the years. We see this no more beautifully or succinctly than in an early scene that transitions seamlessly from a 1980s flashback to the present day. With the camera fixed in one all-seeing corner of the room, an elongated cross fade slowly transforms a scene of a jubilant and crowded birthday party into one of Clara enjoying the fruits of solitude in her modestly refurbished 2016 pad, the same record playing on the turntable in one decade as in the next. People and furniture arrangements come and go, but the soulfulness Clara has striven to cultivate in her home persists across time.
All that Clara has labored for over the years is threatened by the arrival at her doorstep of a construction company seeking to demolish the Aquarius. The company, represented by its president and his obsequious grandson Diego (Humberto Carrão), say they’ll keep the memory of the old building alive by naming the new one, blandly, “The New Aquarius” in its honor. Clara makes short work of their insincerity by pointing out that until very recently the new development was to be christened, even more blandly, “The Atlantic Plaza Residence.” The developers sulk back into their corner of the ring for regrouping, and it’s at this point that we realize we’ve been dropped into this boxing match in medias res. Clara has been stubbornly opposing the developers for at least six years, the building’s other tenants having long ago sold their apartments to the company and moved out.
Thus what could have been a treacly paean to preservationism is anything but. Our sympathy for Clara can only extend so far: every year Clara refuses to move out is another year her less-financially-stable former neighbors are kept from the money they’ve been promised for selling their homes. If Clara’s stubbornness were just a product of elderly nostalgia, it would be easier to dismiss her position. Instead, it’s the result of a deep-seated memory of history. The Aquarius is a receptacle for ugly memories as well as beautiful ones, and the former can be just as meaningful to Clara as the latter.
This could have been a point easily and glibly made in on-the-nose dialogue; instead it’s an occasion for Aquarius’s skilled director to play with genre to achieve the same ends. While the film starts, in 1980, as as a dreamily nostalgic period piece, it metamorphoses into a family melodrama, a raunchy bad-neighbor comedy, and, finally and most memorably, a haunted house film. This might leave some viewers reeling with narrative whiplash, but these changes in register nevertheless help us experience, both viscerally and in a condensed timeframe, what Clara has spent her whole life living.
Clara defends her home through thick and thin, not in spite of all the hurt that has transpired there, but because of it. It’s no surprise to find that same sense of commitment missing from all the younger people around her. In one heated debate with her daughter, Clara incisively calls an entire generation out for its dishonest reverence for the past. “When you love something, it’s vintage,” she snipes, “and when you don’t, it’s old.”
Clara’s not just speaking for the Aquarius here. It will escape precisely no one who sees this film that characters like Clara—strong, sexy, complicated, and well over the eligibility age for AARP membership—never get to be the stars of movies anymore. Cinema’s loss is likewise a loss for an entire generation of younger moviegoers. Sonia Braga hasn’t been called upon for a major film role in several decades, and Aquarius is as grand a rebirth from the ashes of cinema’s dustbin as any older actress could hope for. Braga positively lights the screen on fire, at times with the warmth of a candle yet at others with the violence of an erupting volcano. This is what it means to be a movie star, the type we like to sullenly say they don’t make like they used to anymore.
Clara’s conflict with the developers naturally comes to a head with Diego in a classic clash between the old guard and the new. While Clara is fully a product of Brazil, its buildings, and its institutions, Diego’s character formation has been outsourced to the world of elite, coastal business schools in the United States. Diego speaks that perversely charming language of ruthless appeasement and bottom lines. When Diego accuses Clara of lacking manners and asks her to show some respect for her former neighbors, she viciously turns the tables on him. “You have no character,” she erupts at him, “or, you do, but your character is money. It’s the rich, elite people like you who lack manners; you have no human decency.” Her polemic escalates until it threatens to melt right through the screen. When she eventually backs off just enough to let her opponent get a word in edgewise, that word is “meritocracy”. Cue the groaning and eye-rolling.
Diego’s limp appeal to his hard work and dubious life of hardships doesn’t win any converts to his side. Certainly not Clara, who’s ready to go down fighting in this battle-in-microcosm for the soul of Brazil against the forces of corporate greed and government corruption. In its final twenty minutes Aquarius pulls out all the stops, culminating in one of the most riveting conclusions you could hope to see at the movies this or any year. The very final scene, which sees Clara launching a metaphorical grenade right into enemy territory, doesn’t offer the kind of closure we’ve been conditioned to expect from other movies. Then again, most other movies aren’t as aware of the high stakes of their real-life antecedents as this one is.
Tim Markatos is an editorial fellow at The American Conservative.