Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Kleber Mendonça Filho | Aquarius

holding out
by Douglas Messerli

Kleber Mendonça Filho (writer and director) Aquarius / 2016

Unlike Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s 2012 film, Neighboring Sounds, which dealt with an entire Recife neighborhood and with the Brazil of both present and past, his new film, Aquarius, is razor sharp in its focus on Dona Clara (Sônia Braga) and her wonderfully cluttered ocean-side Art Deco apartment.
      In fact, the story is so focused that, except for a series of events, directed mostly from figures outside of her comfortable “inside” world, there is hardly any narrative to the film.  Instead, this time round, Mendonça Filho has created a portrait of a woman, beginning in 1980, when she is still a young married girl who has just survived breast cancer and jumping ahead to her late middle age, wherein she has clearly inherited much of the elegance and grace of her aunt, Tia Lucia (Thaia Perez) whose 70th birthday was celebrated in the movie’s first scene.

In between Clara has worked as a music critic, writing a book on the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos while equally enjoying the music of everyone from Gilberto Gil to Queen. She has had a son and a daughter, and now has a grandchild, Pedro, upon whom she clearly dotes. And, most importantly, she has, over the years, become a complicated figure, a woman, who as who daughter later notes, is an old woman while being simultaneously a child. Braga, one of the treasures of Brazilian cinema, plays her with a quiet and intense fortitude with a kind a steely reserve that comes from having been sensuously engaged with both her body and her intellect. She is both a rebel and a conservative; someone who deeply cares about ideas and music but is not afraid of standing up against anything she feels is a threat to hers’ and other’s well-being.

      She particularly needs the later qualities, since she is the last hold-out in her beloved apartment building, all the other tenants having taken the money of a Brazilian developer,  Bonfim, and run. Clara refuses to sell, despite the oily offers of the young American-educated construction company representative, Diego (Humberto Carrão). Diego is determined to tear down the ocean-facing small apartment building to build a lavish new high rise, like so many others on the upper-class Boa Viagem Avenue.

     Mendonça Filho toggles between Clara’s everyday activities of both the present and past and the increasingly nasty efforts of the Bonfim company to get rid of her. And, in so doing, establishes Clara’s character and the failings of her children for wishing her to sell. Obviously, if she receives the amount the construction company is now offering, their inheritances will be higher, and in that fact, the film wryly suggests political issues in a country where, even as this film was being shot, the leftist president Dilma Rousseff was being ousted in what many Brazilian intellectuals felt to be a rightist coup d’etat.
      At the Cannes Film Festival, where Mendonça Filho’s work premiered, both the director and his cast held up signs declaiming her ouster and suggesting that Brazil was no longer a democracy.
      Certainly Clara’s warm and loving world, her house and its lifetime of memories is no longer the refuge it once was. To help her change her mind, the construction company hires out  the rooms above her to film a porn orgy, which ends with a most disgusting amount of blood and shit spread out over those apartment floors and a noise that even her records cannot completely drown out. 
      Yet, Clara, herself in need of sex that the men her age are not willing to offer the one-breasted woman, will not succumb, but rather orders up a young man for an enjoyable night.

       The final scenes, where Clara, her lawyer, and family members discover that the developers have brought in a massive termite colony to drive her out, are perhaps the weakest  aspects of this otherwise beautifully filmed and sensitive piece of direction. And the deus ex machina ending, wherein Clara, her lawyer, her son, and brother face off with the developers with newly discovered documents, seems more out of a film like Erin Brockovich than attune with what has come before it. One can only wonder, moreover, after such destruction to so much of her building, whether she can remain entombed in a crumbling castle. Even her trusted and supportive servant—despite Clara’s condescension and even, at moments, abuse—in the end, seems to abandon her and the situation.
       Aquarius, nonetheless, is a kind of quiet masterpiece, a work sadly missing—once the Brazilian conservatives had come to power—from that country’s selection for the American Academy Awards. It showed only for a brief time in selected US cities. I hope to see Mendonça Filho’s future films given far more American attention.

Los Angeles, January 25, 2017

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