Aquarius ★★★½

"So when you like it, it's vintage; when you don't like it, it's old. Is that right?" ~ Clara

In this follow-up to his feature debut, "Neighboring Sounds" (2012), writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho continues to focus on apartment life in Recife, Brazil's fourth-largest urban agglomeration and the capital/largest city of Pernambuco State in South America's northeast corner. Here, we meet Dona Clara (Sônia Braga), the 65-year-old widow and retired music critic who is the last resident of an old, three-story apartment building known as the Aquarius, which has been targeted by developers for urban renewal.

Part One of the film is called "Clara's Hair." The time is 1980. Young Clara (Bárbara Colen), her younger brother Antonio (Buda Lira) and their friends drive down to the empty beach one evening to play loud music, dance in the sand and gossip. Fatima (Paula De Renor) has the hots for Antonio, and they all go to Clara's ocean-view apartment, where Aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez) is celebrating her 70th birthday.

We learn that Clara is recovering from breast cancer treatments, hence her short hair. Her husband Adelberto (Daniel Porpino) worries about her constantly, but she has not only his love but also that of their three children. Then, the scene flips to the present, with Clara living alone in the large apartment, 17 years a widow, with only her housekeeper Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto) to keep her company. Her hair is long now. She enjoys napping in a hammock to the sound of waves and swimming in the ocean each day, even if the local lifeguard Roberval (Irandhir Santos) insists on keeping a close eye on her.

We meet a landowner named Geraldo (Fernando Teixeira) and his grandson Diego (Humberto Carrão), who is representing the interests of a construction company Bonfim to build a high-rise on the site of the Aquarius. When they offer to buy her apartment, Clara turns them down flat. She's not selling, even if every other resident has already accepted Diego's "above market value" offer.

Part Two is titled "Clara's Love." We see Clara rip up Diego's proposal unread, before going for a drive with her nephew Tomás (Pedro Queiroz) to have dinner with his parents. He's got a new girlfriend from Rio named Julia (Julia Bernat), whom he met on Facebook. The following weekend, we see Clara and Fatima enjoying a girl's night out with their friends, drinking, dancing and gossiping. Clara meets a widower on the dance floor and they make out later in his car, but when he discovers she's had a mastectomy, he can't seem to get her home fast enough.

Clara's daughter, Ana Paula (Maeve Jinkings), is all grown up, a divorced single mom with a son Pedro of her own. Clara's eldest son Martin (Germano Melo) is married with two kids, while the younger son Rodrigo (Porpino) is in a relationship with a man named Marcio, who is currently in Brasilia.

Now begins the pressure. Bonfim has former tenants approach Clara and tell her she is being selfish. They can't get paid the full amount they were promised till the new construction begins. Even Ana Paula thinks her mom should sell and move on. Then, the company starts moving mattresses into the vacant apartments. They lease the space to drug dealers and party people, hoping to force Clara out. Later, they''ll try getting the building condemned.

Part Three is "Clara's Cancer," and before it concludes, Clara will be hiring a lawyer named Cleide (Carla Ribas) and playing hardball. Themes here include old versus new, tangible versus intangible, and progress versus reverence for the past. There's also money versus manners, as applied to the sleazy developer Diego.

One wonderful example of Clara's take on music is how she treasures her collection of LP albums over new digital technology because you can hold them. The same is true of her apartment full of memories and feelings, which no amount of money can buy. Lots of wine gets poured in this movie, making me wonder if it is Brazil's national beverage. And I noticed that everyone, even the "poorest" of the characters, seems to drive a nice car. That was not my impression of the country as seen in other films at all. A Recife thing perhaps?

At Cannes, Filho was nominated for both the Queer Palm and the Palme d'Or. The Cinema Brazil Grand Prize named this the year's Best Picture and Filho Best Director, while honoring Mateus Alves for Best Music. Many have given this top honors, and it really is a good film, but not quite the must-see cinema I was led to believe. Somehow, I believe greedy Brazilian developers might be even more ruthless and underhanded than this depicts, in spite of a stand-out performance by Braga.

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