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D: Kleber Mendonça Filho / 146m

Cast: Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Irandhir Santos, Humberto Carrão, Zoraide Coleto, Carla Ribas, Fernando Teixiera, Buda Lira, Paula de Renor, Barbara Colen, Pedro Queiroz

When we meet Clara for the first time, it’s in 1980 and she’s introducing her brother, his girlfriend, and one of their other friends to Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust. Later, at a party to celebrate the seventieth birthday of one of her aunts, we learn that Clara (Colen) has recently beaten breast cancer. Her husband makes a speech in which he praises her strength, and his gratitude that they will be able to spend the rest of their lives together. Fast forward to the present day, and Clara (Braga) is a retired music writer, and a widow of seventeen years. She lives alone in the Aquarius apartment building in Recife, surrounded by hundreds of vinyl records, and a lifetime of memories. Mostly content with her lot, she is well liked and known in the local community, lives near enough to the beach to go for a swim in the sea if she feels like it – and despite how much it worries lifeguard Roberval (Santos) – and is charitable enough to fend off inane questions when interviewed by local journalists. She has family and friends around her, but aside from the daily presence of her housekeeper, Ladjane (Coleto), appears to be comfortable living by herself.

The peace she has attained is soon threatened however, when her apartment building is targeted by a construction company, Bonfim, for redevelopment. While everyone else accepts Bonfim’s offer, and moves out, Clara refuses to budge; she doesn’t even look at their proposal. Her family, particularly her daughter, Ana Paula (Jinkings), believe she should accept the offer, but Clara is resolute, even when some of Bonfim’s workmen install mattresses in the apartment above hers and have a noisy party one night. Further instances such as finding human faeces on the stairwell, and being patronised by Diego (Carrão), the grandson of Bonfim’s owner, and the architect behind the proposed redevelopment, serve only to make Clara even more determined to stay put. Eventually, she decides to take the fight to Bonfim, and with the aid of a friend with political connections, she learns of documents that would be incredibly damaging to Bonfim if they were made public. But while she and her lawyer, Cleide (Ribas), take steps to locate these documents, two of the construction company’s ex-workers provide Clara with disturbing information that, if true, will prove even more damning than the documents…

On the surface, Aquarius is a movie looking to tell its David v Goliath story through the eyes and ears of its savvy heroine, but thanks to a wonderfully diverse, and yet also focused script by its director, the movie is much more than that. It’s a terrifically constructed character piece, with Clara the centre of attention throughout, and made all the more impressive by a complex, intuitive performance by Braga. The key to Clara’s dogged determination to stay where she is, is the fact that she’s a survivor. She has already endured a terrible period in her life, and come out the other side a stronger person. This makes it easy for her to withstand the pleas her family make, and the brickbats that follow when their pleas aren’t acted on. Clara has such a sense of being right, of being right for her and her alone, that she can brush off these attacks with ease. She finds courage in being so resolute, and in turn, this courage helps to maintain her resolute stance. And if Bonfim’s efforts to disturb her peace and solitude were ever likely to succeed in their desired aim, then they clearly had no idea who they were up against. Who else would react to discovering an orgy taking place in the apartment above theirs by calling a friend’s toyboy lover and inviting him over for a session of their own?

It’s moments like these, where Clara doesn’t react or behave in the way that you might expect her to, that make Filho’s script so effective. Clara is simply not a victim, and she has no intention of ever being one, even if it would make everyone else’s lives more convenient or stress-free. For the most part she ignores Bonfim’s clumsy attempts to dislodge her, and goes about her daily life as if their attentions were of no importance at all (which, to a certain degree, they aren’t). She goes to the beach, goes dancing at a club with her friends and picks up a handsome stranger, babysits her grandson, and spends time with her nephew, Tomás (Queiroz), and his girlfriend. She deals with Bonfim if and when she has to, and always with a patient resignation. It’s only when matters escalate that she shows just how angry she is, and there’s a confrontation with Diego that sees Clara let rip in formidable fashion. Over the course of the movie we see Clara as widow, lover, mother, friend, intellectual, implacable foe, and above all, a fully recognisable woman.

It’s rare for any movie to present such a fully rounded portrait of its lead character, male or female, and it’s to Filho’s credit that Clara is so vividly written. It doesn’t hurt that Clara is played by Braga in a career best performance that contains not one false note or mis-step to betray either the character or her director’s faith in her. Braga’s range is hugely impressive, from the melancholy emotions she expresses when Clara remembers her husband, to the tolerant understanding Clara shows to her children when they challenge her obduracy, and the fiery sense of righteousness Clara exudes in the movie’s final twenty minutes. It’s also a defiantly physical portrayal, with Braga seemingly in motion even when Clara is seen at rest, as if the character has pent-up levels of energy that can barely be contained. Braga is an hypnotic presence from the first moment we see her, and she holds the viewer’s attention in every scene, the focus for everything we need to know or understand.

Overall, the movie is a subtle creation, with a temperate, knowledgeable script that examines notions of survival, respect (everyone evinces respect for everyone else but it’s obvious that it’s a façade adopted by everyone, even Clara on occasion), the importance of family, the closeness of friends, political expediency, and nepotism – to name but a few – and Filho combines them all with a skill and a sureness of touch that is just as impressive as Braga’s performance. There are social and political connotations too that are relevant to the present day situation in Brazil, and while most of these connotations will be lost on international audiences, they’re reflected in the machinations of Bonfim and their ultimate disregard for Clara and her feelings. The movie also features fluid, well framed camerawork by Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu, and it’s all held together by Eduardo Serrano’s skillful, perceptive editing. A word of praise also for the absence of a score, a decision that proves invaluable when the lead character has such an eclectic, and terrific record collection in the first place.

Rating: 9/10 – marred only by an abrupt ending that isn’t quite the crowd pleaser that audiences may be expecting, Aquarius is nevertheless an intelligent, quietly provocative movie that is superbly assembled and which draws in the viewer effortlessly; anchored by a glorious performance from Braga, this has a clarity of purpose and a maturity of style that few other movies can match.