Cannes 2016 – Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)

A family gathers in an apartment to celebrate the 70th birthday of Aunt Lucía. As the younger generations make a toast for her, she stares at a cabinet she once owned and remembers her previous lovers and the presence of the furniture where they had sexual encounters. A house begins with the erection of its walls, but it is only finished once its owners are impregnated in it: through their furniture, their things, their lives. These objects become witnesses of our lives and tokens that keep us rooted to our pasts.

1980. Clara lives with her husband and four children in an apartment in the Aquarius building, a two-storey modernist complex in front of the Boa Viagem beach of Recife. Clara is a shorthaired music journalist who just survived breast cancer and deals with the everyday life of Brazil’s intellectual middle class.

Some thirty-five years later, Clara is living by herself in Aquarius. She has been widowed for seventeen years, and all of her children have left home. Housekeeper Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto) and Boa Viagem’s lifeguard Roberval (Irandhir Santos) are her everyday family. The apartment, once a crowded home for six, has become a serene, bright shelter to contemplate the Atlantic Ocean and guard Clara’s immense LP collection. She takes daily dips in the sea, and once in a while babysits her grandson.

Clara’s heavenly lifestyle is threatened. A real state company is planning to demolish the Aquarius to build the New Aquarius, a luxury tower promoted by Diego (Humberto Carrao), the young, American-educated grandson of the company’s owner. They have already bought every apartment but Clara’s, who insists on keeping the home where her family grew up, despite Diego’s generous offer. Clara´s resistance is delaying the project, and a vile confrontation with the company starts: one that will spread to her closest ones, challenging the stability of her elderly years.

The film is structured in three different chapters: the first following Clara’s youth; the second, her senior lifestyle; and the third, the conflict with the real estate company. The film unveils as Clara calmly matures into an elderly woman. She becomes a mediator in the lives of her children: the youngest son is settling down in a serious relationship; her eldest daughter, a mother of one, is facing the difficulties of a separation. A longtime widow, she is now rediscovering her sexual identity and reaching maturity not by repressing it, but by trying to find new experiences.

Barbara Colen briefly portrays the central character during her youth, but it is Sonia Braga as the elder Clara who carries the weight of the film. She embodies the canon of womanhood: an intelligent, educated woman who studies the arts and treats a CEO and a bricklayer with equal respect… who is also graced with a godlike, mestizo beauty. The intensity of the performance is subtly developed until its tense last minutes, when the character’s composure breaks into a redeeming climax.

Mendonça’s architectural eye empowers the apartment to be one of the main characters of the story. Faithful to the luminous tradition of mid-century Latin American housing, it evokes the work of Lucio Costa and Affonso Reidy: generous relation with the city, framed views, delirious latticework. The home also showcases Clara’s (and probably Mendonça’s) obsession with arts and design. We find Breuer chairs, Kubrick posters, and a curated selection of rock and roll and Brazilian LPs that build up to a luscious soundtrack.

Aquarius tackles the systematic destruction of Latin America’s modern architecture to make place for Miami-inspired, soulless buildings. The demolition of this unique heritage is the result of an often corrupt political system and overall lack of appreciation for the value of 20th-century architecture, a subject rarely addressed in cinema. This is not exclusive to Brazil and its cultural neighbours, it is a worldwide issue.

Mendonça meditates on the value of a house, the one beyond the real estate market and deeply ingrained in our pasts. A dwelling matures along with its owners. Clara and her apartment age with dignity: even more, with beauty. Every woman should. The hypnotizing, timeless face of this Brazilian woman brightens her flat more than the morning sun of the Atlantic Ocean does.