Aquarius – Review (****)

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Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds) serves up the role of a lifetime for veteran actress Sonia Braga in this lengthy but compulsively engaging drama about the passage of time, life, death and love.

Clara (Braga) is a 60-something music critic and the sole remaining resident of the towering Aquarius apartment complex, having lived there for four decades and adamant that she will also see out her days there, all while a cagey property developer attempts to entice her out in order to re-develop the land.

It may not sound like the most immediately engaging set-up for a 140-minute drama, and Filho is certainly in no hurry to tell his story, but in selectively fleeting between the past and present and taking his time, Clara’s struggle begins to feel deeply personal to the audience, and we can’t help but become invested in her quest to maintain the hearth and home she has enjoyed for so long.

There’s a lot of quiet heartbreak in this movie and a lot of reticent wistfulness, yet Filho never pushes Braga over that melodramatic line, instead allowing her to subtly tease out the more heartbreaking aspects of the scenario, while also mining unexpected humour and realising Clara’s genuine joie de vivre. Particularly refreshing is the film’s matter-of-fact approach to the sexuality of older women, and while it unquestionably helps that Braga is an incredibly beautiful woman regardless of her age, there certainly aren’t enough realistic, non-comedic cinematic engagements with the carnal proclivities of people in this age bracket.

Anyone who’s ever left a place of residence for a long time and returned to savour its familiar smell will be able to identify with the movie’s core theme of personal identity and how inextricably a person can tie it to the four walls within which they reside (whether that’s healthy or not being an altogether different discussion). The pic’s entirety encompasses the many memories and connections Clara has created in this apartment – most of all her children, of course – and while her plight could easily seem like a middle-class fancy in indelicate hands, here it has a firm emotional pull.

Devastating but also unexpectedly sexy and often rather playful – especially in the outrageous final stretch – Aquarius sees Braga deliver one of the year’s best performances (certainly worthy of an Oscar nod if not a win), and it’s a crying shame the Brazilian Ministry of Culture childishly refused to submit it for Best Foreign Film Oscar consideration due to the cast speaking out against the country’s current political turmoil.

Still, it’s a film potent enough that it’ll surely find an audience regardless, and outlive the ultimately ephemeral nature of the awards circus.

I probably could’ve done without that gratuitous shot of a baby having shit wiped from its ass, though.

****

Aquarius is on limited release in US cinemas now

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