Every year around award season, a cry goes out bemoaning the lack of quality female parts in movies today. For those not allergic to subtitles or a 142-minute running time, there’s Aquarius — a gleaming, ravishingly realized family melodrama, opening Friday exclusively at the Angelika Film Center and Reading Town Square — which affords Sonia Braga a grand chance to remind the world of her greatness. It’s a challenge for which she is most definitely up.
Clara (Braga) has overcome much in life. She beat breast cancer at a very young age only to have her universe — and the lives of her three children — rocked by the sudden loss of a father/husband. That was 17 years ago, and the retired music critic and avid record collector now resides comfortably amid stacks of vinyl. Her luxurious apartment in an upscale Northeastern Brazil neighborhood overlooks Boa Viagem beach, a view she frequently monitors while rocking in an indoor hammock.
The film opens in flashback, as friends and family gather to celebrate Aunt Lucia’s (Thaia Perez) 70th birthday party. Her hair gradually growing back after the surgery, a 30-year-old Clara (Bárbara Colen) is the last reveler to appear on the scene. Perhaps it was a reluctance to outshine the guest of honor (or an eagerness to avoid the spotlight altogether) that explains her late arrival. (Braga has some of the best hair in the business, and it’s put to great use when, years later, a pinch of a clasp unleashes a cascading bolt of black velvet. It’s a triumphant moment of defiant self-awareness.)
While Lucia’s young nieces and nephews anoint their beloved aunt with cuddly testimonials, her eyes key on a bureau and her mind on the memory of a youthful sexual encounter that occurred atop it. Years pass, and Clara finds she’s inherited both drawer and sexual proclivity from her late aunt.
Life begins to unravel the day a father-and-grandson team of landlords decide to flip the titular two-story apartment complex. Clara refuses to budge. Not since Pa Joad has a character stood this steadfast. Then again, Steinbeck would never have allowed a collective of goons to assault his Dust Bowl denizens by renting out the adjoining space in the tent city to everything from fervent church gatherings to lewd (and loud) sex parties. One look at the latter causes our libidinous heroine to seek out the comfort of a male escort.
Being the last tenant standing in a “ghost building” doesn’t make Clara a hermetic eccentric relying more on the company of cats than humanity. The development company has made her a handsome offer, and while a small army of friends and family — all chanting “Sell! Sell! Sell!” — gradually emerges, Clara will have none of it. In defiance, she goes so far as to hire a decorator to recover the staid white walls with an ocean-blue shade of paint, a move in direct violation of the rules of the housing association.
The conversation between Clara and friends at a local dance spot is the closest Aquarius comes to skirting a chick flick. Still, the scene proves essential, as it acts to set up a brief but stinging betrayal. The hottest guy in the club casts a spell over Clara: in no time, the two are in the front seat of his car playing tongue-hockey like a pair of concupiscent teenagers. But news of her mastectomy is an instant deal-breaker, causing Mr. Perfect to slide as far to the right of the driver’s side of the Panavision frame as humanly possible. Clara returns home and shakes it off by taking comfort in her albums.
Braga internalizes much of Clara’s infuriation. It isn’t until an hour into the picture that she quietly confesses anger to her children. The kids are the only characters writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds) allows to get to Clara. She views her daughter’s going behind her back to confer with the property owners as an act of defiance. And the one time Clara snaps is when she suspects the landlords of taking her children to task.
An admiring young journalist visits the Aquarius to meet and interview Clara for a lead story. One would think that the mere mention of digital downloads in this mausoleum to vinyl would result in an immediate dismissal. But Clara professes an acceptance of mp3 technology — a quote that will later come back and bite her. She goes on to tell of finding a newspaper article written weeks before John Lennon’s murder and tucked inside the sleeve of a used copy of Double Fantasy. Clara refers to the discovery as a “message in a bottle.” The term could well apply to the myriad hidden treasures that await the viewer in Aquarius.
We’ve moved far beyond the dawning of the age of Sonia Braga; her moon’s been in the seventh house since first grabbing audiences’ attention with Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and Kiss of the Spider Woman. And don’t dare confuse this with a case of one performance outshining all those that surround it. On the surface, the film appears to effortlessly direct itself. Consider it high praise to the ease and ability with which Filho draws and holds the viewer.
Turnabout is fair play. Chalk my rapt approval up to all the disease-of-the-week of movies that have over the years been taken to task in these pages. When it comes to contemporary women’s pictures, this is more than just a Lifetime movie. It’s the movie of a lifetime.