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Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius is a poignant reflection on ageing, a focused character study on the protagonist Clara (Sônia Braga), who tries to live her life in spite of multiple intrusions to its status quo. Although the socio-economic conditions of modern Brazil exist on the peripheries, make no mistake, this is a film about an individual and her quest for inner peace in her increasingly tumultuous personal life.
The film centres on the ageing Clara, called ‘Dona Clara’ by friends, a retired journalist, as she struggles to hold on to an apartment her family has held for generations. She refuses to sell to a construction company looking to own the property, despite being the last person left in the building, even as she faces pressure from her closest family to accept a deal. The construction company’s attempts to persuade Clara turn sinister and they stage orgies and religious gatherings in apartments upstairs, forcing our determined and caustic protagonist to take action.
The film’s opening sets the tone: we are introduced to a young Clara (Bárbara Colen) who attends the 70th birthday party of her aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez). Friends and relatives gather and recount Lucia’s various achievements, and it is discovered Clara has recently survived a battle with cancer. While Lucia’s achievements are listed – she entered Law at a time in Brazil’s history when it was difficult for women to engage with such systems – her mind wanders elsewhere: she recalls moments of intimacy from her youth while her nieces and nephews speak, and reminds them that in their recollections they skipped over the ‘sexual revolution’ of which she was a proponent.
The film then moves to the present and shifts focus to the now older Clara, who appears to be inspired by her vivacious aunt. She reels against the passage of time, refusing to let age be a determining factor in what she can or cannot do: she simultaneously owns records and cassettes alongside digital formats like .mp3 files, and her battle to retain her long-time home, despite outside interference, becomes an extension of this. Clara desperately tries to hold on to her youth, and long, focused shots of a cabinet owned by her aunt Lucia, whose apartment she now occupies, articulates this struggle of sentimentality versus a more exterior, harsher reality. “I am a child and an old lady all together,” she tells her now grown-up children.
This film is to be applauded for its depiction of the ageing female body. A close-up in the film’s first act briefly depicts Clara naked, her right breast removed via mastectomy, and it is not shown for the appeasement of the heterosexual male gaze. Rather, it appears to emphasise her character’s long history, and by not expressing nudity in a sexual, performative or submissive manner – Clara appears naked not to fulfill the needs of a male contemporary, but rather to wash her body – the film asserts her independence and highlights her solitary existence. When Clara experiences sexual intimacy – she is accosted by a widower at a dance club, and later hires a gigolo – she asserts dominance, guiding her male partners in the act. The film is unabashed in its depiction of ageing sexualities and champions the sexual prowess of its middle-aged protagonist.
Of course, in a film that is more focused on impalpable themes of ageing and the passage of time, the plot takes a backseat until the film’s final act, at which point, much to the film’s detriment, it takes centre-stage. The text loses momentum here when it attempts to wrap up things up having spent a concentrated amount of time on subtext. However, without giving too much away, it delivers one of the most satisfying endings in recent memory as Clara stands up to her tormentors in a climax designed to please.
In all, Aquarius is a beautiful-looking film (Mendonça Filho makes ample use of each frame, filling the text with a plethora of visual information that it warrants repeat viewing), with a poignant and nuanced depiction of one woman’s struggle against the passage of time. It is a case study in determination and will power, and a celebration of its middle-aged protagonist.
Aquarius is in cinemas March 24th. View the trailer below.