Cannes 2016: Aquarius

I covered Cannes Film Festival this year, and I will be posting my reviews here weekly. My pieces are on a website known as The Upcoming and have been published in something called Swipe magazine.

Aquarius is a large, stunning demonstration of what world cinema does so well: a novelistic, chaptered narrative coupled with an acute, engaged character study. Sonia Braga embodies Clara, a wealthy, ageing music critic with the righteousness and assurance of someone who has fought, succeeded and lived abundantly. Writer and director Kleber Mendonça Filho teases out a multitude of feelings, attributes and mannerisms from Braga’s lead performance, and he generally holds the film together throughout its nearly two-and-a-half hour running time (despite a short lethargy in the middle section). It rivetingly depicts the changes in some areas of Brazilian society since the developing country was labelled a BRIC. Globalisation and a growing middle class promise prosperity, but also deliver greed, displacement and architectural abominations.

Clara has been resident in the Aquarius apartment for most of her adult life. The film opens with a short flashback to her aunt’s party, held in the same block decades ago. The young Clara (Barbara Colen), returning after recent breast cancer surgery, is a permanently smiling figure, acknowledging the single-mindedness and compassion of her birthday relative and the fortune of her own convalescence. Forward to the present day, Clara’s smile has diminished. She is wise in some respects, stubborn in others: ‘I am an old lady and a child.’ All of the flats in the building have been sold off; the construction company want her apartment to finish the job. Diego (Humberto Carrao), a young business graduate with an easy grin and a pernicious agenda, leads efforts to remove Clara. He wishes to destroy and build over; whereas Clara obstinately desires to stay in her stylish, tastefully furnished home. This is a war of subterfuge, feigned ignorance, questionable motives and sporadic periods of détente. Clara’s grown-up children are concerned for her safety in the rotting building, and wonder about the implications that not selling-up would have on their own inheritance. Unstoppable forces meet an obstinate, though ultimately fragile, object.

The energy and subtlety of Aquarius are a wonder: it is brilliantly crafted. Braga gives Clara’s character a dizzying portfolio of emotions. The contours of her face display the shame of a single mastectomy, the pride of an esteemed career and the fear of an unknowable future, often within a single moment. The film gets away with an abrupt plot contrivance near the end due to the warmth, brio and ingenuity of the filmmaking on show. The final scene, however it comes about, is funny and triumphant.


Published by

Joseph Owen

PhD, Carl Schmitt, Modernism and Sovereignty at University of Southampton

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