Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

"The closer the glance at the specifics, the more universal the plight becomes." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Kleber Mendonça Filho's enticing creation of a very specific tone protects the people and places he describes. Those dear to one's heart sometimes deserve a taste of tough love and exposure, so they can learn and grow, no matter what the age of Aquarius might be.

In a widescreen experience he captures things essential to living that are often overlooked. It is good to note that deliberately casual cruelties, served with a snake-charmer smile, are intended to wear down rightful resistance. There are things worth fighting for, and they have nothing to do with money.

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An apartment building by the sea in Recife, Brazil, and Clara (Sônia Braga), a woman living in the building, reveals history trapped in both. Divided into three parts, Aquarius begins with a get-together in 1980. A large family celebrates the birthday of Aunt Lucía (Thaia Perez), an elegant woman in a pink suit who has led a full active life and smiles benevolently at the children's attempt to honour her by containing her in a nutshell.

We get a glimpse of Lucia's own sexy memories, triggered by a wooden chest. They call her a "firecracker" and talk about her persecution. Clara, played by Barbara Colen in 1980, will inherit the chest and already has a lot of the aunt's spiritedness.

As we move into the present, Clara (Braga), a music critic, is the last remaining inhabitant of Aquarius, which is the name of the seaside building. Developer Geraldo (Fernando Teixeira) and his mini-Trump grandson Diego (Humberto Carrão) want to get rid of her after they bought out all the others by using a variety of measures in an attempt to make her leave the "ghost building". Braga inhabits Clara with ferocious grace, with a face that registers all the falseness and deception surrounding her.

This is not a woman to be toyed with. The way the outside menace encroaches on her is nothing but masterfully staged. When you think you know how she is going to react, an entirely unexpected yet perfectly coherent decision pulls the rug out from under. Sex and religion in disturbing, organised incarnations and the crawling veins of a particularly damaging species from the Isoptera order are used to harass Clara and wear her down. A Barry Lyndon poster on the wall and the hammock by the window are her personal shield and anchor against a world running wild.

Clara's wisdom lets her take surprising actions, although some of those might not stem from wisdom after all. "You behave like an old lady and a child," she is told by her daughter Ana Paula (Maeve Jinkings from Gabriel Mascaro's Neon Bull and Mendonça Filho's Neighboring Sounds). "Because I am an old lady and a child," is her response. She interacts with family and friends, including lifeguard Roberval (Irandhir Santos also memorable from Neighboring Sounds), and has an upsetting encounter with a man who shows himself as less than a gentleman on a date.

As Jean Renoir famously put it in The Rules Of The Game: "The truly terrible thing is that everybody has their reasons." Yet, some of those reasons make you more amputated than others.

Social distinctions are drawn in the sand by a drainpipe that separates the richer from the poorer section of the beach. The memory of a maid accused of stealing family jewellery provokes the ever distinguishing Clara to see justice come full circle. We exploit the servant, the servant steals from us - nothing to be upset about. And Octave Mirbeau's novel Diary Of A Chambermaid, adapted by Hélène Zimmer and Benoît Jacquot, can help out in tracing some of these thoughts back and half around the world. The closer the glance at the specifics, the more universal the plight becomes.

Objects contain links to a past that would otherwise be forgotten. Aquarius, on one level, deals with how we remember in a world going through drastic changes. Digital messages in a bottle are a different beast from a tactile unearthing. A record, a photograph, the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea. Social dynamics, a city in flux, a world growing old and another emerging - the film's neighbouring thoughts cast a broad net of questions.

Reviewed on: 13 Oct 2016
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A retired music critic is the last resident of a building targeted by developers - she becomes engaged in a cold war of sorts with the company.
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Director: Kleber Mendonça Filho

Writer: Kleber Mendonça Filho

Starring: Sonia Braga, Jeff Rosick, Irandhir Santos, Maeve Jinkings, Julia Bernat, Carla Ribas, Fernando Teixeira, Rubens Santos, Humberto Carrão, Bárbara Colen

Year: 2016

Runtime: 142 minutes

Country: Brazil

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