Aquarius (2016): Sonia Braga Shines in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Brazilian Film (Cannes Fest 2016)

Known to American audiences for her erotic role in Hector Babenco’s Oscar nominated film, Kiss of the Spider Woman, as well as some popular Brazilian comedies, such as Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, the beautiful Sonia Braga has been a major star for four decades, working in her home country as well as in other places.

It is possible to read Braga’s latest film, Aquarius, which world premiered in competition at the 2016 Cannes Film Fest, in several different ways.  On one level, it demonstrates the evolution of an international sex symbol into an accomplished actress, who is still gorgeous looking but now also equipped with an impressive set of subtle performance skills.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

On another, through Braga’s long and fruitful career, it’s also possible to see the film as a chronicle of the vast changes in the demographic and socio-economic conditions of her country at large.

In Aquarius, which offers Braga her best role in a long time, she plays Clara, a retired music journalist, who is living a quiet, largely solitary life in a nice apartment in the region of Recife, the capital of Pernambuco.

Now in her mid-60s (which is also Braga’s real age), she is a widow who has survived–but has not been defeated by—cancer; she is still sexually involved with some dashing guys.  At one point, she hires a younger gigolo for the night.

She spends her days reading books, listening to wide variety of music, from classic to pop, swimming and exercising.  She is also close to her grown children and small grandchildren.

All seems right until a local developer (Humberto Carrão), newly returned from “training” in the U.S., starts buying up all the apartments in her building, named the Age of Aquarius (which explains the movie’s moniker).

Gradually, she finds herself under growing pressures, subjected as the sole “rebellious” tenant to all kinds of dirty gimmicks and tricks played by the younger hustler-entrepreneur.

It’s a tribute to writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho (which means Junior) that in Aquarius he constructs a complex, multi-shaded portrait of a resourceful woman, who refuses to succumb to the prevalent norms of aging as well as to greedy capitalistic schemes.

Clara has the time and energy to go out with her girlfriends as well as fighting city hall and red-tape bureaucracy.  As the sole remaining resident, she wages a one woman’s war of attrition, when they try first to coax her out with money, and then to drive her out by letting the place go down.

The director takes his time—the movie runs two hours and 22 minutes—in delineating a presumably ordinary life as it is lived, day after day, moment by moment, by an extraordinary woman who remains hopeful despite older age.

Though narrowly focused on one dramatic persona, Aquarius doesn’t neglect the broader socio-economic-political contexts, touching upon such issues as social class, racism, gentrification.

This is only the second feature of Mendonça, but he already shows striking maturity and subtlety in understanding the meaning of home as a sacred place, in which every item (including furniture) matters way beyond its functional or even aesthetic value.

When she looks at an old wooden cabinet, she remembers the hot sex she had atop it as a young woman.   The quiet presentation of an old book can lead to an intense surge of feeling.  Clara is proud of her collection of books and LPs, which she shows to her visitors and children.