Karlovy Vary 2016: Aquarius review


★★★★☆
Kleber Mendonça Filho's debut feature Neighbouring Sounds was a taut social thriller about the paranoia of Brazil's urban middle-class. One of the results of that paranoia is a proliferation of high-rise apartment blocks to house wealthy citizens and the building of such a complex is the antagonistic force in the director's second film, Aquarius. Occupying similar territory to Neighbouring Sounds, it is a considerably more subtle beast but one no less sprawling in its symphony of thematic concerns.

These are themselves all riffs on a rich character study of its magnetic and elegant central character, Dona Clara played wonderfully by Sonai Braga. Dona Clara is a retired music journalist who lives, and has lived for almost forty years, in a grand old 1940s apartment building on the Recife beachfront which also provides the film' title. Property developers have bought every other apartment in the block and throughout the course of the film adopt underhand methods to drive her out, but she has more than enough vim not to fold too quickly. Braga plays her with unwavering poise; she's fiercely intelligent and confidently sensual. Far from a crazy old lady refusing to leave her home, she's very self-aware and comfortable in the life she's made for herself. Her apartment and the things that it's filled with, are tactile expressions of her personal identity.

Filho's film meditates on the physical nature of memory and questions the unmitigated rush to thrown away the past in a race for some perceived better future. The notion of feeling and memories transferred by objects recurs throughout the film: in an early sequence set in 1980, Clara's Aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez) glances at a credenza, prompting a flashback to her and a lover having sex on it decades earlier. Elsewhere, Clara discusses her willingness to listen to MP3s but is keen to convey the unique story that an particular LP, for instance, can tell. The surrounding narrative allows Filho to expand these ideas. Much as he began Neighbouring Sounds, the director opens Aquarius with monochrome photography harking back to the past of this Recife coastline. He raises questions about the loss of Brazil's heritage and the negative impact of urban regeneration - particularly in a country facing a sociopolitical crisis.

Filho does also stray into more explicit social commentary in specific moments, highlighting glaring political corruption, nepotism, entrenched racism, greed, class divides and personal security issues amongst other things. These elements are weaved relatively organically into the cadenza of Clara's own story, though attention is drawn to their presence by some unexpected crash-zooms and cross fades that add piquant flourishes of overt melodrama to what is otherwise a more beguiling and graceful affair. It gives the constantly roaming camera of cinematographers Pedro Sotero a slightly more unnerving edge when Clara fears she may have left the door unlocked, a loud party is raving upstairs, or there is the suggestion of a ghost in the apartment. For the most part, though, the visuals echo the sensation of running your hand over a surface, giving Aquarius a completely apposite tactile quality that Dona Clara would cherish.

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson

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