Aquarius has earned a lot of critical praise before arriving at our local cinema — most notably as a contender for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival — but having sat through this more than two hour reflection on aging in Brazil I found myself perplexed by what all the fuss was about.
It’s not that director Kleber Mendonca Filho made a lighthearted film about serious subjects or the performance by Sonia Braga is a lackluster one — because neither of these things are true — but the end result takes forever to reach maturation and may not be received by all local filmgoers as robustly as it was overseas.
Aquarius tells the story of an affluent grandmother and breast cancer survivor living out her retirement as the sole remaining tenant of an apartment complex being sought after by a construction company wanting to redevelop the beachfront property in Recife, Brazil.
Dona Clara (Braga) vows not to move out until she is dead, much to the dismay of a young architect (Humberto Carrão) who initially approaches her and her daughter (Maeve Jinkings) with both respect and a handsome monetary offer to relocate only to later butt heads over the issue.
This is a rather simple conflict, but Aquarius makes it all the more weighty by ruminating on the cultural divide between the rich and poor in modern Brazil while also taking a detour into the aging protagonist’s search for love after being a widower for 17 years.
All these issues are given ample consideration and the subtitled Portuguese commentary definitely provides a buffet of food for thought, but the film imposes such a nakedly biased perspective upon its narrative (in addition to much full frontal nudity) I often wondered what it was actually trying to say and why it took such a long time to actually say it.
The 15-minute prologue to the story does little to establish the characters and the beautiful shots of Braga dancing to the music of Queen to compete with an orgy raging in the apartment above her home seem superfluously out of place with the rest of the narrative. I had hoped for a little comedy to come from the conflict, but the proceedings are all treated with such a dire seriousness that instead of being engaged by Braga’s defiance I was alternatingly bored and depressed by it.
Director Filho also wrote the script, so I guess both the praise for such introspection and blame for its languished execution fall squarely on him. Braga is charming as a woman who has lived a full life and wants to continue living it on her terms, but the story pulls her in so many directions without a destination her talents alone cannot save it from itself. The attempt at a romantic and erotic subplot is given short shrift, but honestly any additional attention would have only superfluously added to the bloated running time. The last half-hour of the film veers into vaguely political territory to create a truncated resolution which is so tacked on the audience is not even given a chance to appreciate the aftermath before the credits roll.
Aquarius the film is very much like the astrological sign which shares its name: It is both independent and original while simultaneously being aloof and running from emotion. You can interpret both to mean what you want, but be advised you also may wonder why you did so afterward. Unrated, but contains nudity and sexual situations.
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.