The easiest thing to say about Aquarius, the Brazilian drama that appeared at Cannes this year to rave reviews and opens Friday exclusively at the Cedar Lee, is that it's a movie for the Cedar Lee crowd. We say that a lot here, but given the November bumper crop of Oscar-caliber films (looking at you, Arrival), and the Friday release of Fantastic Beasts, it's doubtful that this long, intimate story about a woman in her 60s refusing to leave the apartment she's occupied for decades will generate widespread interest in the Cleveland market, even among cinephiles who might be enticed by reports of the film's "marvelous portraiture." For our money, Aquarius doesn't quite transcend its lead performance.
Which, make no mistake, is excellent.
Sonia Braga (who some readers might recognize as Soledad from the Netflix original series Luke Cage) plays Clara, an imperious matriarch who survived breast cancer in 1980 and now lives an unhurried life on the beach of Recife, Brazil. Her apartment, bursting with books and records and photos and wine, is an anthology of her life's experience, a life of trail-blazing as a female journalist and music writer. But her apartment is under siege. A construction company and its sleek project manager have already acquired the neighboring properties and convinced the other residents to move. Clara is the last remaining occupant of the Aquarius complex and vows to abandon her cherished home only upon her death.
Clara's relationships — with her three children, her friends, her housekeeper — are thereafter colored and sometimes embittered by her stubbornness. Most everyone wants her to move on, to accept the company's generous offer. And the company (less the generic Evil Corporation and more the specific assholes within) pressures her by increasingly bizarre means: personal appeals to friends and relatives, legal maneuvers, orgies in the unit directly above, shit on the stairs, rowdy church services in the corridors. But Clara is resilient in her opposition. She refuses to be bullied.
Braga, in the lead role, is a powerful force onscreen. In one tense scene with her children, she calls her daughter an "idiot" in one moment and cradles her in the next. In another, when the project manager mentions Clara's children, she screams in his face that he has no character, an indictment with tremendous force coming from a woman of such entrenched principles. She is queenly and unrepentant, dancing to "Fat Bottomed Girls" while sipping red wine, going for daily swims even when the water is rough, lounging in her apartment's hammock with her hair down, and eventually digging up dirt on the construction company to fight fire with fire.
But the movie is languorous in its effect. The conflict between Clara and the company never has much urgency, the finale and the parking lot confrontation mentioned above excepted. Instead, it functions as a prism through which to view the other relationships of Clara's life. And indeed, as a deep, slow-burning portrait of a woman, Aquarius is a great success. You know her exceedingly well by the end of its two-hour-and-twenty-minute run time: You know her mind and, indeed, you know her body. But one wonders at certain tangents in the script: a lengthy toast, with graphic sexual interludes, to Clara's Aunt Lucia, at a birthday party in 1980 that opens the movie; a B-storyline about Clara's nephew and his love interest from Rio; the memories of a maid from Clara's youth. Do these enrich the portrayal of Clara or do they detract from it?
Writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho, himself a product of Recife, has produced an accomplished character study regardless, of a woman who relishes the past but lives fiercely and forever in the present.