(Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil, 2016)
House of Memories
The sophomore feature of rising critic-turned-filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho – and first of his that I’ve seen – is perhaps the defining film of the current transitional season between a globally destabilizing 2016 and a worryingly uncertain 2017. For this American (that is, a citizen of the United States) approaching Aquarius in the aftermath of a brutal election cycle, it’s difficult not to view the film as a particularly profound statement on political and societal upheaval in our divided nation. But, what’s perhaps even more astounding, then, is that Aquarius is a Brazilian film, resolutely concerned with the politics and culture of Brazil. It’s certainly a testament to the richness of Filho’s work that the implications are thus this far-reaching.
Filho’s protagonist, the indomitable Clara (portrayed with incredible depth and fierce command by the wonderful Sonia Braga), is an aging leftist intellectual and former music critic who refuses to sell her apartment to an aggressive development company keen on demolishing the historic structure to make way for a high rise of luxury condominiums. In this fight, the stubborn Clara stands alone. All of her neighbors caved underneath the developers’ lucrative offers, and in the retro blue beachside complex known as the Aquarius only she remains. On its most basic level, the film showcases an ugly battle of wills as Clara resists not only the company’s persistent offers, but eventually its increasingly disruptive threats as well. The units around her are soon boarded up and used for loud parties, while the halls and common areas are either smeared with excrement or crowded with construction crews. Even her grown children succumb to the pressure of a move they consider inevitable. If Clara is a symbol of a fading radicalism, then the corporation’s smug, U.S.-educated representative Diego (Humberto Carrão) is the juggernaut of neoliberal capitalism incarnate.
This political subtext bubbled to the surface explosively when the cast and crew of Aquarius staged a protest at the film’s Cannes premiere in May 2016. Placards that likened the imminent dismissal of then-President Dilma Rousseff and eventual rise of Michel Temer to a coup d’état plunged the film’s national release into controversy. Critics of Filho’s own leftist leanings condemned the film and even called for boycotts, but others took solace in Clara’s bold defiance. Before long Aquarius – though never once explicitly referencing the specifics of Brazil’s political crisis – became an emblem of a nation in turmoil. In the same year that the Western world endured Brexit and the rise of Trump, the thematic posture at the center of Filho’s film inevitably crossed international boundaries. In the U.S. liberal elitism came under fire throughout 2016, and Trump’s eventual defeat of Clinton (for many, the embodiment of that very elitism) seemed to signal the end of that ideology’s cultural reign.
One could argue Clara is cut from that same cloth. She emerged from a mid-twentieth century right-wing regime on top. In her sixties she’s well off, well respected, and in some ways blind to the privilege that status provides – such as when she casually dismisses a former maid in conversation for stealing jewelry from her family or when she fails to see how her decision to stay in her apartment affects her own children. Filho’s film is remarkably generous to this flawed individual who persists in her resistance till the very end. Those in Clara’s position may represent a dying breed, but there’s deep satisfaction in her refusal to compromise her convictions and that she’s strong enough to bring her opponents down with her.
It’s difficult to view Aquarius divorced from the political climate in which it was written and released, and it’s possible Filho intended its reception to so astutely reflect its time. As with all politically or culturally relevant works of art, however, it may very well threaten the film’s lasting impact. For now, it certainly stands as one of the year’s finest. Strip away the controversy it’s generated, and Aquarius is also a beautiful treatise on the power of memories. One of the film’s recurring images reminded me of Olivier Assayas’ equally affecting masterpiece Summer Hours. In that film Assayas’s camera lingered on heirlooms and paintings that served as capsules of a family’s legacy – a fragile legacy forced to weather generational changes as a matriarch’s progeny decide to transport these artifacts from their ancestral home to a museum, a decision imbued with implication but one Assayas refuses to judge.
Likewise, Filho’s camera frequently returns to a small wooden cabinet in Clara’s living room that has been in the family for generations. In the film’s 1980-set prologue, a startlingly intimate flashback ties this inherently insignificant piece of furniture to a character’s past. And, Filho’s insistence on revisiting this object as his camera delicately floats around Clara’s home as the action carries on off-screen reveals the deep connection between things or places and the memories associated with them. At one point Clara defends her home to the callous Diego by simply asserting, “It exists.” She draws his attention to his shoulder leaning against the solid wood of the doorframe. In one sense she’s referring to the Aquarius itself – in all its vintage glory – but she may also be defending the legacy the apartment complex preserves. And yet, the film’s wholly unexpected finale complicates this bittersweet visual metaphor. The cabinet and the apartment as vessels of memories are both durable and strong – the memory of Clara’s Aunt Lucia has shaped the very woman she’s become – but they are also incredibly vulnerable to those bent on demolishing the past to make way for the future. Clara’s final act of defiance is then all the more powerful. Her memories exist, even if the Aquarius won’t for much longer. And, no one ambitious developer can erase those.