BEIRUT: For outsiders, “Brazil” is a composite of specific images. “The country” generally means Amazonia.
“The city,” usually Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, is a hodgepodge of pristine beaches populated by beautiful, scantily clad women, modernist architecture, desperately poor favelas (shantytowns), crime and – somewhere in the midst of it all – Carnival.
For writer-director Kleber Mendonca Filho, Brazil is his home town. Recife, a 500-year-old, Beirut-sized town on the country’s northeast coast, has all the stuff needed to tell a story to resonate worldwide.
In “Neighbouring Sounds,” 2012, Filho’s critically lauded first feature, the camera lingers over the lives of those who live in one of Recife’s upmarket seaside quarters, and those who work for them.
At the center of that ensemble was Francisco (W. J. Solha), the neighborhood’s principal landowner, whose wealth originates upcountry, in a rural sugarcane planation.
Among the film’s memorable images is some signage Francisco passes every night, warning potential swimmers to beware the shark-infested waters. The old man’s regime includes a nightly swim and the sharks ignore him the way they might one of their own.
“Aquarius,” Filho’s 2016 follow-up, seems to have been set not far from the action of “Neighbouring Sounds.” The shark attack signage, anyway, is the same.
Here the warning applies to Clara (Sonia Braga), a retired music critic who also enjoys swimming in the Atlantic. Her on-site protector is Roberval (Irandhir Santos), a lifeguard whose regard for Donna Clara demonstrates itself to extend well beyond his job.
Clara is the last resident of a two-floor apartment complex called Aquarius. All the others have had their flats bought up by a construction company called BonFim (“goodend”), which intends to level the charming ’40s structure and replace it with something called Atlantic Plaza Residences.
Clara won’t sell. Still, a boyish grin named Diego (Humberto Carr?o) – the grandson of Geraldo BonFim, the company’s oily founder – is insistent. To coax Donna Clara to leave, Diego tells her they’ve decided not to call the new development Atlantic Plaza Residences after all, but to retain the name Aquarius.
When Clara shrugs off this nostalgic gesture, he informs her that this is his first project for BonFim and he intends to see it through to the end. The extremes to which Diego is willing to go to get her out – from insufferably loud, scatological sex parties to Charismatic Christian gatherings – provides the film’s plot.
Like the nearly-plot-free “Neighbouring Sounds,” “Aquarius” is engrossing as much for its subtle character development and visual lyricism as it is for its narrative.
As in his debut, Filho has sub-divided this film into three chapters.
The first, “Clara’s hair,” begins with an extended prelude set in 1980. Then a young mother, Clara is introduced on the evening of the 70th birthday party of her favorite Aunt, Lucia.
An artist and activist who’d been arrested by Brazil’s military junta, and still beautiful in her seventh decade, Lucia endures the potted biography Clara’s son and daughter read out for the guests.
Between sips of red wine, Lucia gazes with yearning at a locked, cube-shaped cabinet where, decades earlier – a montage of flashbacks suggests – she enjoyed expert cunnilingus with another woman’s husband.
Some 35 years later, the widowed Clara lives in the same flat. The cube-shaped cabinet still sits where it was, unifying the characters of the two fiery women who have enjoyed its various uses.
Another filmmaker could easily have told Clara’s story without Lucia or her cabinet. In Filho’s hands, the anecdote – and the cabinet whose contents remain enclosed – is the first detail of the languorous, largely implied, narrative of Clara’s relationship to her home.
Another segue-like facet of Clara’s story, dating from when she was a girl, is that of Juvenita – the maid who worked with her family for years and, it turned out, had stolen bits of jewelry from her mother, her sister and herself.
Clara’s recollections are underpinned not by rancor but the knowledge that her family’s relationship with servants like Juvenita was basically exploitative.
“Aquarius” will screen in Beirut Sunday evening, the closing (and strongest) film of Otras Miradas, Metropolis Cinema’s yearly cycle of Iberian and Latin American cinema.
The film debuted at Cannes this past spring, where it competed for the Palme D’Or. The director and his cast used the red carpet world premiere as a political platform – informing the world that efforts to unseat Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was a coup intent on overthrowing the social welfare reforms initiated by her mentor and predecessor, Lula da Silva.
The gesture did nothing to dampen the film’s critical reception.
Placing human relationships, spatial continuity and memory before demands for “development” for its own sake (or rather for profit’s sake), “Aquarius” strikes a chord more universal than parochial, let alone partisan.
If Filho’s sophomore work departs from the template of his debut, it is in its narrative dynamic. While “Neighbouring Sounds” presents a true ensemble of characters, “Aquarius” orbits about Sonia Braga’s luminous depiction of Clara. She is reason enough to watch this film.
“Aquarius” will screen at Metropolis Cinema Sunday at 8 p.m.