Review: Aquarius

An emotional powerhouse, Sonia Braga is magnetic as a woman unprepared to let go of the life she’s fought hard to build. Rousing. 

When we first meet the striking Clara (Barbara Colen), on a broad beach in Brazil’s eastern city of Recife as Queen’s ‘Another One Bites The Dust,’ blasts from a car stereo, her hair is closely cropped.

It would seem an irrelevant observation other than for the fact that the first of three chapters in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s emotional powerhouse of a movie Aquarius, which took out Best Feature at last year’s Sydney Film Festival and is inspired by the reality of his hometown, is announced via the inter-title ‘Clara’s hair’.

It’s not until she, her brother and friends arrive at a birthday party thrown in honour of her 70-year-old Aunt Lucia that the full import of this detail reveals itself, in an emotional tribute from her husband that acknowledges her recent battle to overcome cancer. From the outset, Clara is a fighter and a survivor.

Emotionally charged, the scene is nevertheless full of joy; awash with colour, alive with music and dancing, establishing strong familial bonds and a connection to place that is the through-line of Aquarius. In a simple piece of symbolism, this core is perhaps most closely associated with a sturdy wooden sideboard that stands pride of place in the apartment where generations of this loving family have congregated to celebrate life together.

When we jump forward 40-plus years, her husband gone, living alone in the same apartment, sideboard still there, even as all the other homes around her sit ghostly empty, Clara is now played by the eminently charismatic Sonia Braga. We understand, innately, her connection to family is through memory of place. The lady is not for budging; a position which puts her squarely at odds with a construction company hovering like vultures, waiting to demolish and rebuild one of the soaring, soulless towers surrounding her beachfront oasis.

An insincere patriarch and his overly friendly nephew Diego (Humberto Carrao), armed with a “shit-eating grin,” as Carla so succinctly puts it, lead the delegation set on convincing her to leave.

The remaining two chapters continue the trend of slowly teasing out the meaning behind an ambiguous title while following Clara’s one-woman mission, pushing back against a corporate machine that wants her out by any means. Of her various advisors, it’s her family who are convinced it would be better to give in and move out, particularly daughter Ana Paula (Maeve Jinkings), provoking the complex frictions of familial politics.

Braga is the the unwavering heart of this movie, delivering a towering performance as the magnetic Clara. She’s surrounded by a wonderfully vibrant circle of friends too, most notably in a fabulous disco scene. While it delivers a whiff of romance followed by a harsh rebuke when a would-be suitor suddenly loses interest on discovering Clara’s scars, her spirit is undaunted by this cruel rejection. indeed, a later scene involves her taking direct control of her sex life. By the final act, you’ll believe nothing could stop her.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords

★★★★

Aquarius is screening exclusively at Cinema Nova. Grab tickets here.

A version of this review first ran during the Sydney Film Festival.