It takes sixteen minutes before we’re treated to the sight of Sônia Braga, and it’s a shock: dessicated, eyebrows returning with awkward stubbornness, orange islands and peninsulas of scorch marks from chemo. Braga is Clara, a retired music critic whose apartment in Recife is the last bulwark against wolfish real estate developers. Writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius serves as a valentine to the Brazilian actress and an elegy to a cultural leftism on the ebb tide. Although a picture made with great feeling and commitment to an idée fixe, Aquarius depends on the audience’s connection to Braga rather than her character; the way in which Filho’s understandable indulgence of his star becomes the film’s preoccupation erodes what he has set up.
In a scene reminiscent of the first act of 2009’s Summer Hours, Aquarius opens with a glimpse into a honeyed past: a young Clara celebrates the birthday of a beloved septuagenarian aunt. The Olivier Assayas film was setting up a scenario whereby the audience got to understand the sentimental and financial attractions of the possessions over which the assembled relatives later squabbled; by contrast, Aquarius introduces the fact of Clara’s poor health. Yet she gives the impression that cancer isn’t going to kill her so much as she’s going to kill it. When magazine reporters interview her for a profile and make inane remarks (“I see lots of physical media,” the reporter asks, goggling at Clara’s vinyl collection as if they were boxes of frogs), Clara unsheathes a cut-the-bullshit smirk. She’ll need it. The building owner wants her out. A glance at the godson with the Ivy League degree (Humberto Carrão) dispatched to handle her convinces us that the odds are unfairly stacked; with his quick smiles and scruffy beard, it’s easy to imagine he’s a hit with the young ladies but hopeless against the sheer face of Clara’s disdain.
Familiar to international audiences for Doña Flor and Her Two Husbands and her appearance as the sultry woman of mystery in 1985’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, Braga made an impression on young Soto as Mrs. Westlake, Theo Huxtable’s imperious algebra teacher in the second season of The Cosby Show. With her gravelly voice and generous hair, Braga played a woman you couldn’t con or bargain with; she would bury you for the sake of a point. She played another Exclamation Point Incarnate in 1994’s The Burning Season (where she reunited with Kiss co-star Raul Julia) and made a few token appearances on American television for the next twenty years. Aquarius is the best role she’s ever had, the first that fuses her invincibility and warmth. As Clara, she plays an avatar, the embodiment of Brazilian culture but a cosmopolitan too, at home with Queen or blissing out to Maria Bethania. A Barry Lyndon movie poster hangs over her living room like an image of the Sacred Heart. We understand why she would fight even her own children to keep the apartment. She’s lost a breast and is treated as a relic; she’ll be damned if she’s going to be pushed around. “You’re like an old woman and a child!” “I am an old woman and a child.”
But when the camera whirls with Clara as, glass of wine in hand, she twirls around her apartment to “Fat Bottom Girls,” Filho goes gaga over his star. The family feuds as staged and written (complete with the requisite gay son) are as familiar as Mom’s chardonnay. In 2012 Filho directed Neighboring Sounds, which dealt with the same clashes between modernity and tradition happening over real estate. Pricing out the dregs of the middle class so that citizens no longer have access to good schools, public areas, and a cultural life is the topic of our times. As Aquarius progresses, its hold falters, its tension slackens. A character at one point laments Clara being “alone in a ghost building,” a comment on Braga’s position relative to everything else in Aquarius. What results is a good movie about Important Things built around a formidable star, perhaps with Oscar in mind, instead of a good important movie starring a formidable talent.