For a very brief period in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Brazilian actress Sonia Braga looked poised to become a major Hollywood star. Her significant supporting role in Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1985), a Brazilian-American co-production that won William Hurt the Oscar for Best Actor and was nominated for Best Picture, got studio suits’ attention; a few years later, she appeared in Robert Redford’s The Milagro Beanfield War and Paul Mazursky’s Moon Over Parador (both of which, oddly, are set in fictional locations, with Milagro somewhere in New Mexico and Parador an entirely invented South American country). Neither film was a hit, and the same tepid box-office fate met her last big Hollywood showcase, The Rookie (1990), in which she played one of the criminals (alongside Raul Juliá again) being pursued by cops Clint Eastwood and Charlie Sheen. While she would later be nominated for an Emmy for John Frankenheimer’s TV movie The Burning Season (opposite Juliá again) and has appeared in guest roles on numerous U.S. TV shows, that was the end of her feature-film heyday. So it’s marvelous to see Braga setting the big screen ablaze—speaking her native language, for once—in Aquarius, a Brazilian drama constructed entirely around her.
That focus on a single protagonist marks a significant change of pace for writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho, whose debut feature, Neighboring Sounds (2012), was a kaleidoscopic portrait of an entire city block. The two films share the same location, however: Recife, a major metropolitan area on Brazil’s east coast. Opening in 1980, Aquarius quickly establishes the oceanfront apartment building after which it’s titled, introducing a vibrant young woman named Clara (initially played by Bárbara Colen) who lives there with her family. Decades later, Clara (now played by Braga), at 65, still lives in the same apartment, alone, having recently retired from a highly successful career as a music critic. Developers have purchased the building and plan to tear it down, replacing it with luxury condos; they can’t legally force Clara to leave, however, and she refuses to abandon the repository of her life’s memories, even though she’s the last remaining tenant. So begins a rapidly escalating war of wills, with the new owners trying to make Clara’s existence such a living hell that she’ll voluntarily move out, and Clara fighting fire with fire… except substitute something more viscerally disturbing than fire.
Summarized like that, Aquarius almost sounds as if it could be a Hollywood movie, pitting a lovable underdog against The Man. Despite his title, though, Mendonça Filho is just as interested in Clara herself as he is in her fight to remain in the building. Indeed, there are two different movies at work here, which only seem tangentially related. One of them examines our attachment to objects and places and the ways that we invest the inanimate with meaning; even in the 1980-set prologue, a minor character’s glance at a credenza in the apartment triggers a flashback to a time when she’d had sex atop it, decades earlier. The other just wants to hang with Clara, observing her love life (this is a rare movie that confidently depicts an older woman as highly erotic); her relationships with her family (especially a daughter played by the terrific Maeve Jinkings, who was part of Neighboring Sounds’ ensemble) and her longtime maid (Zoraide Coleto); and her love of music ranging from samba to Queen. This sprawling approach makes Aquarius a tad unwieldy—the film runs nearly two and a half hours—but since both movies are thoroughly enjoyable in their own right, it seems churlish to complain that they don’t mesh as snugly as one might like.
Plus, no matter what’s happening at any given moment (apart from the prologue), Braga is killing it. Clara’s tenderness and her ferocity are inextricable, and Braga miraculously succeeds in making the character an indomitable force of nature (to the point where you want to urge the rapacious real-estate villains to throw in the towel; they’re clearly outmatched) while simultaneously revealing how fragile and weary she can be. To call this performance a career-crowning achievement seems insufficient—based on her magnificence here, it’s not clear that Braga has ever before been given a real opportunity to show what she can do. (That she somehow lost Cannes’ Best Actress prize, which went to Ma’ Rosa’s Jaclyn Jose, is perhaps the worst indictment that can made of this year’s jury, which handed out what’s widely considered to be the most wrongheaded bunch of awards in decades.) Aquarius is almost certainly too tiny and foreign to get Oscar attention, but if voters are serious about wanting to celebrate actors of color, they need look no further.