Wednesday, 28 July 2021



Resistance Is Mutual

Brazil/France 2016
Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho
Arrow Academy Blu Ray Zone B

Aquarius is a blind buy I picked up in Fopp records in one of their ultra cheap sales a couple of years ago. I hadn’t heard of it but something about it felt like it would make for compelling viewing... especially since the main protagonist is in her mid sixties... that’s unusual in itself for a lot of movies. I think I lucked out again because, it has to be said, it’s a pretty amazing film.

It’s also a long film, coming in at around the two and a half hour mark but, honestly, it doesn’t feel like it. It’s one of those movies which starts after about a minute and a half of company logos, which is a ridiculous amount of time for these things (I can’t remember a single one of them) but, I guess in proportion to the total running time, that’s a small enough percentage for me to have to sit through.

The Aquarius of the title is an apartment building on an ocean front and it’s here that around 95% of the movie is set. We see photographs of the surrounding area back in their heyday at the opening of the film and then go into it proper, introduced by the first of three chapter sections entitled... Part 1: Clara’s Hair, Part 2: Clara’s Love and Part 3: Clara’s Cancer. And don’t worry, that last section title is not a spoiler so much as it is a metaphor... but I’m not going to tell you about that as it will be a surprise to first time viewers.

For the first 5 - 10 minutes of the movie we are taken back to 1980, where we meet the main protagonist Clara, played for this small prelude by Bárbara Colen (who, I have to say, has a lot of presence in the role with just this small section). As we get an idea of her and her family, as a birthday party for her Aunt is in full swing, we find out the sort of woman she is... a cancer survivor and part of a family who are not frightened to do the right thing and even go to jail for their beliefs (such as her Aunt once did).

We then come forward in time to the present day (or 2016, in fact). Clara is widowed, has had a mastectomy of her right breast, is living alone in the same apartment of the Aquarius and she’s still pretty much the same person now... passionate about music, art, wine, her family and sex. She’s also a minor celebrity in some ways as she’s a well known music journalist/writer and you get the idea that she was quite an important figure in her past. Actually, that’s one of the nice things about this movie... there are a lot of details about certain things left unsaid and merely implied. Most movies of this nature don’t usually go down this route of using shorthand to draw the backgrounds of their characters but it’s nicely done here and you soon know everything you need to know about the tenacious Clara. Little things like, when she’s interviewed by a young journalist for an article, explaining the reason why physical media and the history of the object and surrounding paraphernalia is better than the ‘digital’ world of MP3s and so on... told me just the kind of person she was. I liked the character already.

Clara is now, at this age, played by an actress called Sônia Braga, who has had a long and illustrious career both in Hollywood and her own country. And, I have to confess, I’d never heard of her. I do now though and let me tell you... there are some films which are ensemble pieces and there are some films which rely heavily on the person who is the main lead to help make the film work. There’s no criticism to direction here, either approach is equally valid and can either work or fail depending on both the cast and crew. Let me say right up front that this movie belongs in the latter category and Sônia Braga is, frankly, absolutely sensational in this film. It’s a brilliant, electrifying performance she gives here and, indeed, many... including Braga herself... think it’s her greatest role.

The plot concerns a real estate company, presented by a young hotshot business manager, who wants Clara to move out of the Aquarius so they can redevelop it. Clara, however, is staying put, cares nothing that she’s the very last person living in the block (all the other tenants have been bought out) and is adamant in the quiet fury with which she rejects their persistent, lucrative offers. This is her domain and she and all her children were brought up here.  

And the film wanders along exploring Clara’s day to day existence while, always in the background, we have the threat of the building company and what they’re going to try next to get her out. I won’t tell you but the film has a great and interestingly understated yet, still, ferocious focus to it which would not even be an event in a Hollywood movie. Here, though, it’s quite amazing and... yeah... I can’t spoil it for you.

The majority of the film is told in edits from one, mostly static or slow moving shot to another and the director often disregards any wildly ambitious camerawork. Again, that’s not to detract from the effectiveness of his choices here... it works very well. There are a few times, though, where the camera motion also does some interesting things. A couple of cross cutting dutch angles towards the end of the movie where Clara is looking up at the Aquarius, for example, are nicely juxtaposed. Also, there’s an absolutely amazing shot where the camera just looks away from Clara and pans up around a wall of her apartment and then wanders over the ceiling, as if looking for something. What makes this shot fantastic is the sound design, as it shows Clara struggling to hear the trajectory of the people outside her apartment and going into the rooms above. So the viewer's ear is almost tricked into following the sound by the implied movement of the camera within the frame... which I think was a very cool idea and I don’t remember seeing this done as well as this in a movie before.

This film sparked major political controversy when it played at Cannes which included, from what I can make out, a point where the cast and crew staged a protest. In vengeance, apparently, the film was awarded a 19 certificate to restrict it’s profits but an appeal got it to a 16 rating. Over here in the 'good old Victorian values United Kingdom,' of course, it’s been slapped with an 18 certificate for ‘strong sex’ anyway but, yeah, that’s just our stupid censorship system. I honestly don’t understand what all the political hoo hah with the film is and I’m not sure if it stems from the content of the movie (I’m not into politics so I wouldn’t recognise such concerns in a motion picture) or whether it’s for something which just happened to be going on at the time of the film’s premiere screenings but, taking all that stuff out of the equation, I can see that criticising the underhanded practices of certain real estate companies might be a threatening gesture towards certain industries (and any corrupt governments, of course).

All that shilly shallying aside, though, I can do nothing but sing the praises of Aquarius... it’s an absolutely stupendous, slice of life drama and Sônia Braga’s performance and the character she plays are an absolute joy to watch. This is definitely a film which will stay with me as the years go by. Definitely one to make yourself acquainted with.

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