Brazil might not want you to know it, but Aquarius is something special. Writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s follow-up to the similarly exceptional Neighboring Sounds was notably not chosen as its country’s submission to the Oscars this year, a decision that may or may not be linked to a protest the filmmakers lodged against the new Brazilian government during the Cannes Film Festival.
The film’s plot follows an ongoing dispute between the aging Clara (a superlative Sônia Braga) and the company that owns her apartment building; the company wants to demolish it and start anew, a lucrative plan stymied by the widow’s refusal to vacate. This makes her the last holdout in a “ghost building,” as everyone else has moved out.
Aquarius intrigues most when the realities of that conflict — vaguely intimidating visits from company officials, a bizarre sex party thrown in the unit above Clara’s — give way to impressionistic glimpses of her recollections and dreams: a successful battle with breast cancer that left her scarred in more ways than one; the maid who stole jewelry from her family decades earlier.
Aquarius is the name of this building, which takes on the role of a memory palace. The film that takes place in and around it is a strange brew of class divisions, sex on the beach, and physical media that you’ll want to keep downing, especially with Braga tending bar — her performance is exactly the kind of late-career showcase you might wish all your favorite underutilized actors would receive. She anchors almost every scene across a 142-minute runtime that can’t hope to contain her immense talent.
Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho
Opens October 14, Angelika Film Center
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 12, 2016