Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 21, 2016 7:06 pm 
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Diva v Developer

This is a less stylistically radical film than Neighboring Sounds (ND/NF 2012), Kleber Mendoça Filho's debut, and differs in focus. But the two films, both firmly set in the director's native eastern seaside town of Recife and around a specific neighborhood, have in common a growing menace, an edge of evil, and keen awareness of class, race, color and habitat. In contrast to Neighboring Sounds' multi-voiced, crabwise narrative, Aquarius, though, focuses headlong on one person, a single apartment, and one issue. The imperious Clara (a magnificent Sônia Braga) has lived in the same flat much of her life, raising her three now grownup children, and though everyone else has left, she won't sell it to developers waiting to tear down the forties building and put up a big garish high rise. Braga is tremendous, and fills every scene with her subtly intuitive diva-hood. The movie isn't otherwise as intriguing or mysterious as its predecessor. But it has made waves at home, and looks like a potential sleeper hit for sophisticated mature Stateside audiences. In this more conventional format the movie yet has its own complexity, visiting Clara in other locations and times and establishing how the apartment has acquired through decades of human use the quality of baraka as Robert Graves defined it in his Oxford Addresses on Poetry. The movie's deeper theme is the pursuit of profit as an enemy of human value.

Her apartment isn't big, but its ocean views, lovely light, and elegant comforts make you want to move in. (The glorious widescreen images of Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu are bright and delicious.) At first they ask her nicely, and she just tears up their offers and refuses to talk to the developer, Bonfim (Fernando Teixeira), or his ingratiating but scarily large grandson (Humberto Carrão), fresh from US business school. So then they're not so nice. Notice the sly unity of Mendoça Filho's invention, which once again plays with the auditory. Clara is a retired music critic and public intellectual, Catholic in taste and adaptable to new technology, a user of MP3 in her smartphone, but protected by a wall of vinyl records, whose value over digital as time capsules she points out to a pair of young women come to interview her.

She will be assaulted by her own alien "neighboring sounds": a porno movie starts being made, and a crowd parties in the apartment overhead into which Bonfim has moved a slew of mattresses. She responds by pulling out a disc to blast back with "Fat Bottomed Girls." (At Cannes Mike D'Angelo wrote for AVClub he was the only one to laugh, recognizing the album cover and guess at once this would be the cut from the Queen album Jazz she would play.) It's touches like this moment that make Aquarius more specific, yet more universal, than the usual.

Original "Jazz" album w/ "Fat Bottomed Girls"

What's a Brazilian movie without music? or a Mendoça Filho film without complex sound design? Alas, the English subtitles fail to explain for us some key Brazilian song lyrics at other points. Anyway, despite her vinyl riposte, the porn has a clear positive effect on Clara. It amuses her, and prompts this lonely, sensual woman to hire an escort for an evening of hot sex the film illustrates with a stylish mix of boldness and restraint.

The risk is that Mendoça Filho's slow burn (and similar two-hour-and-twenty-minute length) may work less hauntingly in this more straightforward story and just seem like dawdling. But the compensation is that the socio-economic and personal story lines are equally vivid and strong. An early scene celebrates Clara's Aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez) turning 70 in 1980, in the same building, and looking at a humble chest, flashes back to a man going down on her there long before: this is also a celebration of older women as boldly sexual beings. Clara is elegant and attractive, but she is a longtime cancer survivor with a mastectomy, and a man she charms at a dance club with girlfriends (they're lively too, but Clara radiates beauty as if under a spotlight), takes her home the minute he discovers the surgery. What is it like to be so admired and then so rejected? Clara's relations with family and friends are similar. They adore, but are peeved by her. She is sensual, she can charm, she can be a snob, she can throw her long black mane around grandly or menacingly or tie it up in a tight stylish bun.

As the battle between diva and developer climaxes the film rises to mythical, ex machina, levels, becoming a metaphor for corruption in the whole country that's at once too neat and at too pullulatingly creepy and maybe, as Peter Bradshaw wrote in the Guardian at Cannes, not an ending at all. But Kleber Mendoça secures his position as one of today's most interesting and poignant directors.

Aquarius, 146 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes May 2016; 18 other international festivals, including Toronto, New York (9 Oct.), London and finally Mill Valley, coinciding there with its limited US release 14 Oct. 2016 (Angelika Film Center, Paris Cinema NYC). Now showing NYC City Cinemas Village East Cinemas.


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