Sonia Braga plays a 65-year-old breast cancer survivor.
The cast and crew of the Brazilian film Aquarius sparked controversy at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival when they publicly protested the impeachment of Brazil’s then-President Dilma Rousseff. That act cost them official government support and possible Oscar nominations.
As a result, the film is often understood in political terms, but its portrayal of a mature woman’s romantic life is far more compelling than its political commentary.
Aquarius kicks off a series of films presented by the UW’s department of Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies at the UW-Cinematheque the next three Fridays, starting Feb. 24.
Sonia Braga (Kiss of the Spider Woman) stars as Clara, a 65-year-old breast cancer survivor and widow. She resides in a seaside complex at Boa Viagem beach in Recife, Brazil. Her neighbors have moved out due to an impending new development, but Clara has refused to sell. Aquarius toggles between Clara’s personal relationships and her efforts to remain in her beloved home.
Her fight to keep the apartment absorbs much of the 145-minute screen time, but the leisurely pace undercuts most of that drama. Her nemesis, Diego (Huberto Carrão), a smug millennial fresh from business school, will do anything to drive Clara out to break ground on the new development. But with the exception of a vivid confrontation at the end, the conflict is an unimaginative retread of the familiar story of heartless capitalism.
What we haven’t seen nearly as often in movies is a nuanced portrayal of sexagenarian sexuality. Braga shines in scenes that explore Clara’s quest for intimacy. In contrast to her defiant stance against her landlords, Clara exposes a tender vulnerability as she takes emotional risks. She makes out with a widower with potential, only to see him pull away when she discloses that she has undergone breast surgery. Since mature men cannot be mature about such things, she calls a young gigolo to get what she wants.
Director Kieber Mendonça Filho emphasizes the beauty of lived experience, as embodied by Clara’s home and body. Clara’s hair, lost 30 years ago in treatment, has regrown and triumphantly flows down her back. Clara understands the sacrifices associated with each wrinkle and scar. Her home similarly showcases evidence of a life well lived, including a record collection in which each disc has a story.
Clara could find comfort elsewhere, but doing so would erase many traces of her. Aquarius celebrates the multiple facets that create a singular human being.