For movie fans of a certain age, Sonia Braga will forever be the personification of sultry female desirability, if only thanks to her breakout performance in the 1985 drama “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”
Braga’s latest star vehicle, “Aquarius,” will do nothing to dispel her mythic stature as one of the screen’s most captivating actresses: Even as she approaches 70, Braga projects a fierce, leonine air of sexual confidence and self-possession. With her famous mane of hair swooped up or swinging behind her, she strides languorously through “Aquarius” like a queen surveying her domain – except in this case, her purview isn’t just the setting of the movie but the entire movie screen and, by extension, our collective imagination.
Braga plays Clara, a 65-year-old widow living in a sunny, breeze-cooled apartment in Recife, Brazil, when – inevitably, given her prime seaside view – she’s contacted by real estate developers looking to buy her out. They’ve purchased every other unit in the slightly worn-down building, and now they’re trying to break down Clara’s defenses, first through charm (the developer’s grandson is particularly gifted at the soft-sell), then through more aggressive tactics. But they have clearly underestimated Clara, who becomes more steely in her resolve to stay even as her own children encourage her to move to a place that’s more “appropriate.”
Viewers expecting a conventional David-and-Goliath conflict set to a samba beat will be surprised and delighted by “Aquarius,” which has been written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho at a pace worthy of a heroine who imperiously refuses to be rushed. The movie actually begins 30 years earlier, when Clara and her family assemble in the apartment to celebrate the birthday of a beloved aunt. In a protracted, slowly unfolding opening sequence, the audience bears witness to the associations and deep emotional connections that the place and its furnishings take on over decades of use and intergenerational inheritance. (“Aquarius” takes its title from the name of the apartment building itself.)
Filho takes just as much sweet time to observe Clara’s daily life and rituals as she does her stretching exercises, chats with her longtime housekeeper, bathes in the ocean, gathers with friends and embarks on a brief liaison with a maybe-interesting man. What for other filmmakers might be a series of trivial digressions becomes the ballast of “Aquarius,” which turns out to be less about the twists and turns of Clara’s story and more about the confounding experience of aging, the mind-body conundrum, and how the physical environment becomes such a potent signifier of time, memory and meaning.
As a showcase for Braga, “Aquarius” is nothing less than triumphant, a one-woman show of strength, sensuality and indomitable staying power. Skeptics may take issue with Filho’s criticism of millennial-generation materialism and ethic of disposability. (One of the film’s many side conversations has to do with vinyl vs. MP3s.) But he makes a persuasive argument, nonetheless.
Right up to its somewhat perfunctory but sneakily satisfying conclusion, “Aquarius” makes a compelling case for looking up from our ubiquitous distractions to take in the world around us – the one that we live in and, whether we’re aware of it or not, lives in us.
Three stars. Unrated. Contains some nudity, sexuality and obscenity. In Portuguese with subtitles. 142 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.