Film Review: Aquarius

It’s all about the star, and what a star she is!
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Sonia Braga, Brazilian high diva and unforgettable sexual icon of the end of the last century, makes a triumphant comeback in Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, which is one of the most glowing tributes to an actress ever made. Aged now, but remarkably “unimproved” by surgical “enhancement,” Braga’s aristocratic bone structure has only been purified by time and experience. Her intelligent eyes are ever more like great, sorrowing yet humor-filled dark wounds, while that trademark cascade of raven hair remains as thick as it was in her breakthrough Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, 40 years ago.

Here she plays Clara, a retired journalist living in Brazil, with seemingly the perfect lifestyle: days spent on or near the beach, lying in her hammock; a beautiful apartment filled with the books, vinyl and cassettes she refuses to part with, although she knows all about an MP3; a daughter and adorable grandchild who pay loving visits; a tight circle of close friends and lovers who are man enough to appreciate both her age and refined loveliness, not to mention being a one-breasted cancer survivor.

However, all of this is threatened by a big development company that has taken over her apartment complex, buying tenants out, with Clara the sole remaining resident who simply—and quite sensibly—does not feel the need to relocate her comfort zone. The company sends over some fierce representatives, including Diego (a meltingly handsome Humberto Carrão), the developer’s grandson, to try to persuade and then force her hand, but they are no match for this tough, beautiful old bird.

Filho’s relentless yet at all times loving focus on his star calls to mind Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 and Pasolini’s Mamma Roma, both in its febrile understanding of the feminine psyche and exquisite sense of detail. Blessed with a great camera subject, his approach here is wonderfully loose, his camera often merely content to follow this physical wonder. The screenplay, while not exactly a model of flashy wit, is more than sufficient, relying, one suspects, on frequent ad-libbing among Filho’s capable cast, which adds to the deeply lifelike quality of this entire enterprise. This quality is never more apparent than in a drinking scene with Clara and her girlfriend, which has a genuine, quite irresistible air of hilarity about it, although nothing anyone says is particularly funny. There is a remarkably bold sex scene, in which our heroine tells a young visitor first that she wants him to leave, and immediately after that she wants to have sex with him. Indeed, Aquarius is often such a richly layered and observant portrait of a woman’s daily life that it’s akin to reading Colette, and in matters such as these there can be no higher praise.

The camerawork of Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu is an essential element, capturing the full glory of the beauties of both the film’s star and beachy Brazil, only tellingly marred by a shot of a termite’s nest, with particularly hideous implications for Clara. Filho is also exceptionally canny in his use of music, which often starts up only at the end of scenes, providing, in the perfection of its curating, both the perfect commentary on and summation of what has just happened.

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