Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius opens with a scene set in the eighties and with a young woman putting a cassette into a car stereo. The unmistakable kick drum and bass line of ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ fills the car and booms throughout the cinema, as the characters in the car begin to get into the groove of the song – it is new to all but music critic Clara, who put the song on – and smiles start to spread across their faces.
Clara then arrives at a party being held for her mother, an elderly woman, who is the recipient of a speech from a group of children from the extended family. As the children talk, the woman’s eyes drift to a chest of drawers, and her mind wanders back to her youth and a time in which she had a passionate sexual encounter on top of the chest of drawers. Filho lingers for a brief few seconds on this same chest of drawers later in the film – following this introduction, the remainder of the film takes place in the modern day – and the we have our own Proustian moment, transported back to the start of the film and the significance of this simple piece of furniture hits home hard.
Filho’s interest here lies in the importance of tangible objects and the weight of history that they carry. At another point in the film, music critic Clara – played by the 65-year-old Sonia Braga – is questioned by a journalist about MP3s. She lectures the journalist about the way in which a record can hold a history, sometimes one entirely disconnected from the content of the LP itself. It’s the film’s most blatant foregrounding of the overriding theme of the piece, and Filho just about gets away with it.
Clara is being forced to move out of her apartment by a “passive aggressive” construction company that are uninterested in her or the history of the building. At one point Clara snaps to her daughter, “When you like it, it’s vintage. When you don’t, it’s old.” This is the culture that begins to swirl around Clara, one that is concerned with things being new and not respecting older objects or indeed Clara herself.
Clara is a formidable women, and one who is, in part, such a powerful force to be reckoned with thanks to her age. Braga – who is perhaps best known for her 1985 performance in Kiss of the Spider Woman – is stunning as Clara, imbuing the character with palpable quiet fury and a remarkable amount of strength and grace.
Filho clearly realised what a powerhouse performance he had with Braga in the central role, and the camera frequently holds on her for a long time, allowing us to drink in the deep emotions writ across her face. He is also somewhat expressive with his camera – a Barry Lyndon poster on the wall is a bit too on the nose, given the way in which Filho uses zooms – and for the most part this aids in the telling of this rather gripping but day-by-day tale, rather than distracting from it. The same can be said for the film’s remarkable sound mix, which again heightens a lot of the drama, but also very occasionally pushes things a little too far.
As the film reaches its climax the thematic underpinning of the film regarding age, history and the importance of tangible objects comes to a head in a gut punching way. The film also dives deep into saying something wider and more political in these final scenes, and whilst Filho doesn’t completely pull this off – the ramp up is a little too sudden after the slow burn of the rest of the film – it’s still thrilling, thoroughly engaging, and fascinating to mull over.