In Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, the political is personal: it’s a movie about resistance to corporate takeover that’s intimately grounded in the cumulative weight of memory and history, seen through the eyes of its intrepid heroine. Clara (Sonia Braga) is a woman of a certain age, a widow and a retired music journalist living in the same sunny oceanfront apartment in Rio where she and her late husband spent decades raising their children, hosting family gatherings, singing and dancing and making love. When the building is bought by condominium developers, Clara—stubborn and imperious—refuses to budge; she attempts to go about her normal routine even as her neighbors vacate and the nearly empty building is vandalized by squatters. Eventually, she orchestrates an act of revenge against the developers that’s satisfying in its dramatic impact…though one is left wondering whether it will be enough to guarantee Clara’s security.
The more overtly political Aquarius tries to be, the less subtle and more conventional it becomes. It’s much more interesting when it conveys the degree to which Clara’s apartment is a monument to her entire adult life—one that has been marked in equal measure by loss (the death of her husband, the removal of a cancerous breast) as well as by joy (music, sex, children, laughter). I’ve seen very few films that manage to capture the sway of time so poignantly. Even though the film only briefly depicts a previous point in Clara’s life (in the form of a lovely prologue sequence set at a family party being held at her apartment), Filho and Braga are masterful in building a sense of time and history into the film, and in suggesting that domestic spaces and objects carry traces of the lives that happen in and around them. With the lightest of editorial strokes, for example, Filho shows how something as unassuming as an antique wooden chest carries generations’ worth of memories. It’s in these delicate moments, more so than in its more aggressive ones, that Aquarius really soars.