Brazilian national psyche writ large in exquisite film

Brazilian film icon Sônia Braga stars in “Aquarius,” which tells the story of a woman fighting to maintain her world while exploring the intersection between femininity and old age. Courtesy of Zimbio via AFP/Getty Images

Athena, Marianne, Europa, Columbia, Lady Liberty… The list goes on, but throughout the world, countless nations have chosen to personify themselves in the form of an idealized woman, embodying notions of peace, justice, progress and mythological greatness. But can one person, one woman, really embody an entire country? Can one person’s story encompass a whole nation’s driving spirit?

“Aquarius,” acclaimed Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s newest film, confronts these questions head-on. The film—nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes—stars Brazilian film icon Sônia Braga, who is adored both in Brazil and throughout the world. After a hiatus from acting in her native tongue, Braga delivers a phenomenal performance in “Aquarius,” a treat for lusophiles and film lovers alike. (I can vouch for Braga’s magical presence both on and off screen, as I was lucky enough to see her, unexpectedly, at a screening of and Q&A about “Aquarius” in Los Angeles.)

The film centers on Dona Clara (Braga), a former music writer living in Recife, a northern Brazilian town on the Atlantic shore. She, a widow, lives alone but carries on a rich life, mirroring the opening scenes of a birthday party in the ’80s celebrating her beloved and charismatic aunt. Clara lives in relative peace until she learns that a nasty young developer has plans to buy her apartment building, called the “Aquarius.” She is the only remaining tenant yet to sell her unit, but she staunchly refuses to give in, despite the nefarious lengths they go to get her to move out. This is crux of the plot, as Clara fights fiercely to preserve the physical world she knows and loves—represented by her apartment—while also sensing that her reality— her family, her body, her youth, her happiness; in short, everything that constitutes home—is slowly slipping away.

We follow her journey as she confronts life as a sexagenarian: searching for love and sex, not always in the same person; dealing with children who respect her yet resent her stubbornness; and struggling, but in the end triumphing, over her evolving relationship with her personal freedoms. It is fantastic to watch the portrayal of Clara unfold considering the dearth of films treating women, and most of all older women, with such care and complexity.

That such depth, moreover, can be relayed in a digestible storyline is commendable in itself. Granted, “Aquarius” runs long at around two hours and 20 minutes, but every last, languid second is worth savoring.

“Aquarius,” it can be said, tells the story of Brazil in microcosm. The film features an epical structure, divided into chapters and casting obvious heroes and villains. This relatively simplistic plot allows the film to refreshingly and unapologetically depict a woman’s life with verisimilitude. Its message, however, achieves a national—and ultimately universal—appeal.

The film captures the Brazilian spirit in the way a sweeping history film just cannot. Braga’s character is certainly not the efígie da República, the female personification of the Brazilian nation printed on its currency. But then again, why can’t she be?

Clara, as a retired music journalist, taps into an essential piece of Brazilian culture. The film’s wonderful soundtrack offers the expected (but never tired) bossa nova grooves, along with other fun cameos like Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls.”

Clara is multiracial—as is Braga herself as well as many scores of Brazilians—a fact referenced disparagingly by her antagonist. This is reflective of the extant racial hierarchy in the country, a remnant of its extensive slave history. “Aquarius,” though, presents an even more nuanced picture of this reality in Clara’s relationship with her maid: They band together to save the apartment, but Clara’s economic status often painfully eclipses her ability to see her as a full member of the family.

Clara, lastly, is resilient and optimistic, two characteristics that Brazil as a whole deserves to own with pride.

All things considered, Clara can indeed be read as a representation of Brazil. Kleber Mendonça Filho, though, shatters the notion of an idealized female national figure, instead presenting her with all her glorious faults and victories. In this way, Mendonça Filho is challenging notions of both womanhood and nationhood.

The challenge is only exacerbated by the cast and crew’s bold protest staged at Cannes in which they held up signs denouncing what they called the “coup d’état” against ex-Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff this year. The controversy only grew amidst the Ministry of Justice’s overly high initial rating, which would have limited how wide an audience it can reach, and Brazil not selecting “Aquarius” as its submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

Politics aside, you can think of “Aquarius” as borrowing from Antônio Carlos Jobim’s famous bossa nova track “Aguas de Março,” in which he paints a picture of life as a collage of objects and images—some sad, some happy, some without any feeling at all—as the season changes from summer to fall. Life, like Braga’s character, quite simply refuses to stop marching forward.

Clara, thus, is a perfectly imperfect incarnation of the Brazilian national motto, “Ordem e Progresso” (“Order and Progress”). Her life, on the one hand, is messy, advancing and receding in fits and starts. However, her personal strength and conviction bring a certain order and stability to her time of crisis, all while empowering the traditionally female space of the home evoked in the film’s title. She is “clara,” clear: a distinct individual, a source of light, a beacon among obstacles. She is an inspiring figure, an idealized “real” woman if you will, who constantly progresses forward—fearful and unsure, yes, but never giving up hope.

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