Originally published here
Ageism in Hollywood may be so endemic that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler resorted to joking that “there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60”, but that ageism isn’t evident in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius. Sônia Braga’s powerhouse performance proves that age does not equal a decline in vitality or relevance.
Braga plays Clara, a 65-year-old retired music critic living in the old-world, upper class Brazilian seaside neighbourhood of Boa Viagem in the city of Recife. Her world is the apartment block Aquarius, which once held a community of its inhabitants but has now been gradually emptied thanks to the efforts of property developers. Clara refuses to leave Aquarius despite a handsome offer and her children’s fears for her safety, even when the developers use increasingly insidious methods.
These methods include disturbances from young people, who obviously (and wrongly) assume that, because of her older age, Clara will be disgusted and quickly motivated to move. But, like Clara, the Aquarius is unbreakable, evolving and amassing more wisdom with every generation that passes through it. An old dresser, which evokes memories for both Clara and her beloved Aunt Lucia, coexists with an extensive rock record collection – a juxtaposition that is emblematic of the varied personality of its owner. When a loud party directly above the apartment blasts dance music at a loud volume, Clara simply matches the racket with Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls.
With the Brazilian government under fire for corruption and insistently gentrifying to the detriment of the majority of its population, Clara’s predicament becomes a metaphor for the country’s situation. Property developers freely coerce homeowners to leave, with the police nowhere to be seen and no legal options to turn to. Clara’s an easy heroine to root for: wrongly robbed of her property in ways seen countless times before.
Director Mendonça Filho (Neighbouring Sounds, MIFF 12) hails from Recife, making this a rose-coloured portrait of a local who holds nostalgia for the city that was popular for holidaymakers in the 1960s and is angry to see a rich history disappear in the name of corporate homogenisation. Mendonça Filho employs more visual flourishes than the social justice cinema from directors such as Ken Loach: he is less concerned with the bureaucracy of injustice, instead interested in the ephemeral emotional connection held between a person and a place. Despite most of the film occurring within a small radius of the building, Mendonça Filho builds a warm familiarity with the locale. Clara’s daily visits to the beach are less about the act of swimming and more about a conversation with the friendly lifeguard, and the front entrance to the apartment block evokes unseen memories of gatherings between residents in years gone by.
The first scene introduces the history of the building, something that lives on in Clara’s unwillingness to sell. The film may stretch to fit its languid running time and not venture far outside convention, but Braga’s performance is exuberant and graceful, an extension of the place itself. The walls glow with memories, stories of Clara’s life lived through music and family, a history built and shared. To demolish it in the name of gentrification would be to destroy not only Clara but the past itself.