AQUARIUS was one of last year’s most critically successful films. Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, with a terrific central performance by Sonia Braga, this Brazilian drama was re-screened at the Arts Picturehouse recently with an added treat: a Q&A with Mendonça.
If you still haven’t seen the film, it’s well worth considering for your next visit to Netflix. Braga stars as Clara, a retired music critic and cancer survivor. She is the last resident of an oceanside apartment building named ‘Aquarius’. Her neighbours have all left to make way for a construction company to knock down the building and replace it, but after spending the best (and worst) years of her life there, Clara’s determined to stay put.
The tone of the movie sways gently between drama and comedy, such as one terrifically farcical scene wherein one of the developers attempts to slide a pamphlet under Clara’s door. In the Q&A, though, Mendonça revealed that the tone of his original script was “more kitchen-sink, like the cinema of the brothers Dardenne or Ken Loach”. As soon as Braga was cast, her “cinematic presence” pushed him more towards the style of “Italian films from the 60s” that showcased “special” women such as Sophia Loren. It would be fair to say Sonia Braga’s performance is the “special” ingredient for the film.
Braga brings terrifically dour facial expressions to comic scenes like the one mentioned above, but also displays a great deal of vulnerability in the film’s sex scenes. Mendonça feels that “sexuality is unfortunately still a taboo in cinema and society”, and that “now, in Brazil, censorship’s gone mad with the extreme right”. He could never accept why this film was rated 18: “All the sexual situations are healthy. There’s no raping or violence.” This is very true; whilst not always tame, Mendonca consistently directs the sex scenes (and indeed, the whole film) with a lack of judgement. There is no censorship, nor is there fetishisation or focussing on one gender’s gaze. When Braga is first seen nude, it is an unsexualised, understated reveal of her lumpectomy scar, and when she later has sexual encounters, even when they do not go well, she is always in control.
The strength of the lead character isn’t just down to Braga; she’s not playing Clara when we first meet her in her 30s (played by Bárbara Colen), yet she’s still an instantly captivating free spirit, going for beach drives during a family party, or walking nonchalantly past a couple making out. She’s well-written at her core, which was apparently easy for Mendonça; “[Clara is] very clearly an artistic representation of my mother… so I know Clara, that’s why I could write her”. This explains why Clara is so rarely affable yet consistently likable and warm – Mendonça confesses his own mother was “quite a handful”, but it’s obvious he still loved her, and brought that love and understanding to the character.
If you missed your chance to attend this event, then keep your eyes peeled for other opportunities to see AQUARIUS on the big screen. Mendonça has brought such warmth, humour and sensitivity to this piece, and it deserves to be seen by as many as possible.