It’s hard to open a review of Aquarius with any summary or overview of what the film is about, just because so much of what makes Kleber Mendonca Filho’s follow-up to Neighbouring Sounds so distinctive is the way in which the premise emerges over the first hour. As a result, it probably makes more sense to start by simply describing the first part of the film, which opens with an incredible prologue set in 1980 at the beach of Boa Viagem in the northwestern Brazilian city of Recife. Following a montage sequence depicting the gradual development of the beach into an international tourist destination, we’re presented with a collection of thirty-somethings who have driven right down to the water to listen to the latest American pop trends in their car, as if the United States and the rest of the Western world were just across the waves, tantalisingly within reach. Over the course of this incredible scene, we don’t really get to know the characters beyond the sense that they seem at home on the beach, and even empowered by the beach, although it’s clear that one young woman is in some sense the ringleader and visionary amongst them, if only because she’s the first to introduce them to Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust,” which reverberates so heavily across the mise-en-scene that it quickly blends into the more natural and residual rhythm of the waves crashing on the shore. Just as the party vibe of the song itself sits uneasily alongside its pessimistic lyrics, so this vision of total communion with the surrounding landscape quickly reaches a point where it is almost too intense, too overdetermined, too manic, although Filho stops the scene at just the right moment for all its optimism to remain largely intact. Before we know anything about the film or the narrative, then, it is clear that in some sense this strip of coastal land is going to be a main character, and this abstracted version of the beach, shrouded by night and drenched in car radio feedback, percolates its way through virtually every moment in the rest of the film.
At this stage, incidentally, it’s by no means clear that what we’re experiencing is even a prologue, and so when the action shifts back to a party across the road, and these opening four characters return to the apartment where it is taking place, it feels as if we now might be starting the film proper. Before we discover anything about this party, however, Filho once again establishes the space within which it occurs, suffusing it with a sensuous luminosity that brims with collective potential and an unspoken sense that some event of momentous import is right around the corner. As the flurry of adults, children, conversation, music and momentum moves in and out of the space, a toast is raised and we discover that this party is being held for someone referred to as Aunt Lucia. Over the course of the speech, we find out that Lucia – now celebrating her 70th birthday – played a critical role in Brazil’s revolutionary movements of the 1960s, and was apparently somewhat ambiguous about the New Professionalism that was only just coming to an end when this scene was set, since a reference is made to her time in prison. Just in case this speech might seem too expository or too extricable from the mise-en-scene within which it occurs, however, Filho intersperses it with a series of flashbacks depicting Lucia’s intense sexual communion with her husband, most of which revolve around cunnilingus, which will turn out to be a recurring motif throughout the film and an analogy for much of its collective and generous spirit. By the time that Lucia gets up to speak, it feels almost natural that she should pay tribute to her ex-husband and their sensual life together, especially since it turns out that he passed away some seven years ago and that the gathering is partly a tribute to his memory.
For a moment, there, I was wondering whether the film might play as a retrospective recapitulation of Lucia life, but the focus shifts again – and this shifting focus feels utterly continuous with sensuous mobility of the mise-en-scene as a whole – to a man who appears to be Lucia’s nephew, who requests to be able to add something of his own to the toast that has just occurred. In a moving and understated speech, he pays tribute to his wife, Dona Clara – who only now emerges as the ringleader from the beach – for her courage and fortitude in surviving cancer over the last year, and frames the party as a tribute to her spirit and resilience, in a kind of buoyant optimism that is nevertheless marked by morbidity in the same way as the Queen sequence that played out in the opening scene. Between those two moments, the party itself not only feels utterly inextricable from the space of the apartment and the wider milieu of Boa Viagem but also seems to capture the lingering promise of both the New Professionalism era in Brazilian history that was just starting to come to an end as well as the new promise of the redemocratisation and neoliberalisation era that was just around the corner. Poising his mise-en-scene perfectly on that precipice, Filho then cuts to a daytime shot of the apartment that I gradually read as the morning after but that is held long enough for a flatscreen television to make its presence felt and signal to us that we are now in the present day. In many ways that television is an appropriate bridge, since it quickly emerges that Dona Clara, now played by Sonia Braga, is still living in the apartment some thirty years later and has somehow made a name for herself by way of her LP and cassette collection, as well as her attachment to analog culture more generally. Indeed, our main introduction to the film proper takes place via an interview conducted with Dona Clara in the apartment, in which she reflects upon the continuities between analog and digital culture in ways that make it clear that her sympathies and sensibilities are firmly grounded with the former, as are – in various ways – those of Filho himself.
Yet apart from this interview – which doesn’t even establish Dona Clara’s profession – there is less exposition in the next hour of the film than in the first ten minutes. Gradually, very gradually, we find out stuff about Dona Clara’s family – why she is alone, what has happened in the intervening years – although there is just as much that is left out, turning this into something between a family drama and a character study; or, rather, a study of a character who has been forced back upon a new kind of individuality after her family has dispersed and dissipated around her. Although it turns out that her siblings, children and grandchildren are still a part of her life, it’s her relationships with friends, incidental acquaintances and potential one-night stands that forms the main part of her day-to-day interactions, as well as creating some of the most powerful and poignant moments in the film. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes, Dona Clara picks up a man at a bar only for his lustful obsession to dwindle to polite distance after she discloses that she has had a mastectomy, a moment that is all the more confronting in that this is the first time that the audience find out about it as well. Time and again, the film reveals little details of Clara’s backstory and character in exactly this way, refusing to fill us in until information emerges naturally over the course of the story, and never allowing us to get too far ahead of the characters that surround Clara in her everyday routines. In the process, Filho creates a beautifully lived-in portrait of both Clara and her home, with some of the most sympathetic and joyous moments reserved for the quiet times when she is left alone to commune with her music collection, along with the residual warmth of an analog past that never quite seems to have dwindled when she is within the apartment. That’s not to say, of course, that the outside environment doesn’t exude any of the same collectivity as well, but that these moments – a marathon starting, a crowd of people lying down laughing – always seem to be in some sense generated by the apartment, as well as by the peculiar sense of porosity that the apartment extends to every other space in the film in turn.
In short, by moving his film at such a naturalistic pace – it never feels slow – and introducing Dona Clara in such an incidental manner, Filho ensures that her character feels utterly inextricable from the apartment, just as the apartment feels utterly inextricable from the particular matrix in Brazilian history at which she came of age. That in itself would be enough to guarantee a brilliant character study, as well as a beautiful history of the present, but Filho gradually introduces a new element into the picture, although “introduces” seems too sudden and concrete a term for the way in which the peculiar ambience of the beach starts to turn a little chilly about halfway through, becoming just a little too ambient, or a little too agoraphobic, in the process. Even more so than in Neighbouring Sounds, that process is a result of Filho’s trademark use of split-diopters – an analog process if ever there was one – as well as his proclivity for deep-focus compositions and sudden shifts in focus that segue the ambient fuzz of everyday routines into a wider, more emergent sense of surveillance. Combined with a series of spectacular sight lines that unexpectedly reveal themselves to be point-of-view shots, often from a great distance, that all works to turn the sensuous awareness of other bodies into something more elusive and sinister, a more distributed agency that seems to have identified itself with the salt haze that gets into every pore and suffuses itself across every scene. At first, it feels as if this threat might have something to do with the beach itself, thanks in part to Dona Clara’s periodic conversations with a local surf lifesaver, but it gradually constellates around a property group – and especially its young CEO, played to perfection by Humberto Carrao – who express interest in acquiring Filho’s apartment as part of their plans to pull down the building in order to erect a high-end condominium of the kind that has colonised virtually every other part of the beachfront. It is in the early stages of these negotiations that we discover that the film is named after the building itself, as the entrepreneurs aim to prove their “respect” for the structure and its heritage by assuring Dona Clara that they plan to name the new condominium development the New Aquarius, rather than Atlantic Plaza Residence, as was originally planned.
As might be expected, Dona Clara refuses and the next ninety minutes of the film trace out the corporation’s various efforts to get her to change her mind. To some extent, the allegorical relation to Brazil as a whole is clear here – after all, Recife is one of the most socioeconomically segregated cities in one of the most socioeconomically segregated countries in the world, a microcosm for Brazil as a whole. Similarly, there is brilliantly pointed satire of corporate nefariousness, with Carrao, in particular, absolutely nailing the perky, can-do, entrepreneurial “niceness” of the upwardly mobile property baron. What cements the film’s brilliance, however, is that the process of imminent corporate acquisition is never differentiated from the wider ambience of Filho’s mise-en-scene. Just as his luxurious and languorous pace renders Dona Clara utterly inextricable from the apartment, and the apartment itself from Brazilian history, so the slowness – if you want to call it that – works perfectly to capture just how far-reaching, insidious and insinuating the corporation is in its willingness to play the long game. Pervasive, patient and assured of success, its various intimidation tactics are ultimately less unsettling than its willingness to watch and wait, which comes up against Dona Clara’s own determination to make it feel as if both parties are somehow harvesting the peculiar porosity and ambience of Filho’s mise-en-scenes for their own ends, making for a film whose atmosphere is always shimmering from one moment to the next, alternately standing for all the analog forces cushioning Dona Clara and for the digital surveillance that the corporation has at their disposal (with the only time we actually see Dona Clara using digital technology herself occurring when she is aiming to elude, evade or pre-empt the company’s surveillance tactics and technologies).
In some ways, that distances the film proper from the luminous collectivity of the opening prologue. At the same time, however, the fact that this peculiar sensuous ambience is suddenly up for contention – and on the verge of being co-opted by corporate interests anxious to remake the history of Boa Viagem in their own interests – means that Dona Clara is ever more ingenious and inspired in claiming it as her own, as is the film as a whole. As one person after another chimes in and urges her to move out – usually as a result of some manipulation by the corporation – she becomes ever more defiant in her lifestyle, which doesn’t necessarily manifest itself first and foremost in acts of aggression – if anything she is most vulnerable in direct combat – but in a kind of cruisey malleability that I think of as distinctively queer, and which is certainly aligned with queer subcultures in various ways throughout the film. In one of the most remarkable scenes, the corporation organises for an orgiastic party to be thrown in the apartment above her own, an intimidation tactic that also plays as a disfigured legacy of the sexual and social liberation that cast such a warm glow over the prologue, now co-opted by corporate interests in order to desecrate everything for which it once stood. In a brilliant retort, however, Dona Braga hires her own gigolo and achieves her own sexual awakening on the same night, fellating him while he fondles the remains of her breast and achieving an epiphany that is as transitory as it is ebullient, if only because of how vividly – if briefly – it recalls the aching promise of ongoing liberation present in the opening scene.
As the film proceeds, these moments of resistance increase in both sensual intensity and ambient dispersion, until it feels as if Dona Clara has set herself against the infiltration of the corporation into the entire neighbourhood as much as the release of her particular apartment. As with Neighbouring Sounds, Filho’s camera has a peculiar affinity for the porosity of modernist Brazilian architecture, with the result that the imminent destruction of the building has such severe consequences for the camera that it often feels as if Dona Clara has in some sense set herself the task of continuing the film, or at least continuing the role that is her own life, creating a once-in-a-lifetime, tour-de-force performance – from Braga no less – that should certainly have been included in the Best Actress award at Cannes. In that sense, the film perfectly juggles what might be described as high melodramatic and high naturalistic imperatives with aplomb, building towards a conclusion that occurs with such an air of climactic finality that it would almost be an anticlimax had the film not so scrupulously prepared us for it over the last two and a half hours. Without being in the least regressive about it, Filho presents analog cinema as a revolutionary medium and digital cinema as a reactionary medium, as well as aiming to recover the analog potential of the digital image in the process, and in many ways the melodrama of the conclusion feels like a distinctively analog gesture, a refusal to allow the film to wither away into the contested digital ambience that has in some sense formed its main subject matter, as well as a decisive indication that Dona Clara has now reclaimed this ambience as her own. While that may contain the ambience right at the last minute for a more recognisably melodramatic conclusion, it also liberates it even more in retrospect, as well as identifying it even more thoroughly with Braga in retrospect as well, in one of the most mesmerising and majestic studies in cinematic atmosphere and melodramatic poise that I have seen in some time, as well as an absolute pinnacle in Braga’s long and storied career.