Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho - 2016) Movie Review [Sydney Film Festival]

SCREENING IN MELBOURNE FROM 23 FEBRUARY 2017 - Originally Published July 8th 2016

Aquarius is a shrine to an incredible woman with a confounding central performance from Sonia Braga. Writer/director Kleber Mendonça Filho crafts a consuming tale about principles and passion. Aquarius is not a star sign, it's a Brazilian apartment block on the less affluent side of town in the process of being consumed by building development and gentrification. With family pressures, lucrative offers and escalating acts to drive her from the near deserted building, Clara (Sonia Braga) refuses to leave and halts the reconstruction.

Aquarius is an evocation of the power of sense memory. The sequences in the film where you get glimpses into the traces of life in Clara's possessions are like taking the step off a ledge into free fall. The opening of the first segment of the film features young Clara, along with her brother and children, taking a drive along the beach to test out the car's stereo system. The camera floods the screen with the retro device and Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" blares through the car and cinema speakers. The blistering clarity, the thick bass riff; it's accessing memories for you as much as it makes memories for the characters.

We return to Clara's home, the primary setting for the remainder of the film, and there's a birthday celebration underway for her elderly Aunt. Filho draws the audience in to observe Clara's Aunt during her birthday speech. As she catches a glimpse of a dresser that immediately transports her and the audience back to fond erotic memories of her great love in her youth. Filho presents the memory in monochrome and the glare of the outside world swallows the edges. It's striking, fast and quite stunning. The party ends and thirty years passes.

It is absolutely not simply a cute device, leant on for the entire film. Braga's Clara doesn't bounce around her past like Rick and Morty bounce around infinite (and infinitely stupid) dimensions. The totems of life lived are triggers that you're surrounded by. It's a defining memory state that informs her strong willed and often stubborn character for the rest of the film.

Filho, an accomplished documentarian, creates the space for you to observe restraint. Set across two time periods in Brazil, Clara (Braga - and ever so briefly Barbara Colen) feels like she may break; you fear the escalating actions of the developers are going to result in something harmful happening. Filho gives you brief glimpses inside Clara's headspace with one particular moment of dark paranoia unfolding like a very real nightmare on the screen; but for the most part though you're attempting to penetrate Clara’s defences. Filho seems intent for authenticity and stages a profoundly steady series of unfolding events and emotions. Braga wears Clara like a glove. The strengt h, the tenderness, the quiet doubt the sensuality, you'll be hard pressed to find a better performance from a lead this year.

There are other people in this film, but they basically have the sound turned down. Aquarius is Clara. Clara is Braga. Braga is magnificent.

★★★★

BLAKE HOWARD IS A WRITER, A PODCASTER, AND THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.