Aquarius ★★★★½


Here's my brief blurb for Reverse Shot's Best of 2016 countdown:

On the red carpet just moments before the world premiere of Aquarius, director Kleber Mendonça Filho, lead actress Sonia Braga, and other key personnel from the film staged a protest in front of the cameras, holding up signs decrying the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff as a coup d’etat. One sign read, “Brazil is not a democracy anymore.” This is a claim that should resonate with any Brazilian with a political memory, and that’s why Aquarius is a dangerous film. Mendonça’s second feature depicts Braga as Clara, a leftist intellectual and former music critic who has survived breast cancer as well as the 20-year right-wing military government that was supposed to stamp out undesirables like her.

The question Aquarius poses (and answers in the affirmative, without an iota of cynicism) is whether Clara can weather the next storm: neoliberal capitalism. A ruthless real estate firm is trying to force Clara out of her beloved beachfront apartment so they can demolish it and build luxury condominiums. Aquarius is a film about the most vital weapon in a radical’s arsenal: historical memory. It is precisely Mendonça’s ability to articulate the Then with the Now that rapacious neoconservatism demands. So whatever you do, don’t claim continuity, don’t observe an ongoing cycle of oppression. This is a film about the struggle over an edifice of the past. Preserve it, or knock it down?

Furthermore... much of the artistic success of Aquarius is a result of its apparent accessibility, the fact that it really did have the makings of a minor hit at home (just like any Oscar film). Mendonça's debut film Neighboring Sounds had a broader purview, in the sense that by focusing on gentrification in Recife, it treated urban space as a kind of interlocking puzzle. All the different classes, races, genders, and ages had their place assigned to them by an indifferent power structure, and this instigated lateral violence and internecine conflicts, since there was no hope of even identifying the actual enemy.

Aquarius, by constast, gives us the stereotypical "tough old bird," the woman who plans to fight City Hall all by her lonesome, damn the consequences. This is an archetype that appeals to liberals, and Mendonça deploys it with full cognizance. But of course he not only deepens Clara with her erudition, her sexiness, and her hauty demeanor. She is shown harming the other former tenants (who need the developers' buyout money) through her intransigence. So again, we see that individuals literally across the hall -- on the same equal playing field, depsite their socioeconomic differences -- are pitted against one another, while the upper crust simply has to wait them out.

In short, it's one white elephant vs. hundreds of termites. But the results are never certain, because the "flexibility" of liberal capital also permits its undoing, offering the small gaps through which a clever rebel can drive a truck. And another one bites the dust.

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