Director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius puts forth a strong attitude on the concept of ownership—one which is deeply representative of Brazil as a nation. During the last five years, the country has been through its worst recession since the 1930s, a crisis that culminated with the largely symbolic impeachment of President Dilma Roussef this month. Roussef was replaced by her vice president, Michel Temer, who’s arguably even more unpopular; surveys show that less than two percent of the population say they would vote for him in a general election. The fallacy of Brazilian democracy was the target of signs held up by film’s cast and crew at the gala premiere, which said things like, “The world cannot accept this illegitimate government.” The belief is that the Brazilian government no longer belongs to the people.
The struggle of an aging music critic fighting against land developers to keep the apartment she’s lived in for decades takes on a sociopolitical dimension in Aquarius. Clara (Sonia Braga) has filled her modest, waterfront home with records; she’s prone to talking up activist artists like Maria Bethânia to friends and family, but is more likely herself to play some Queen. When a journalist asks Clara about her eclectic collection, and how she feels about MP3s, the sternly opinionated woman reaches for her copy of Double Fantasy, pulling a newspaper clipping dated just a week before John Lennon’s 1980 assassination from the sleeve of the LP. She wants to show that ownership of an object is about more than material possessions, but rather that it’s about dominion of personal histories—that memories possess our objects.
Mendonça Filho’s film is about the power and importance of memory, and he recognizes that music, more than objects, can provoke a sensory experience. And like the filmmaker’s fascinating, if stolid, debut, Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius is a film for audiophiles: The opening scene, part of a flashback set in the 1980s, shows Clara and her friends hanging out in a car, blasting “Another One Bites the Dust,” and Mendonça Filho makes sure that the sound in that moment comes through as forcibly as it would if we were there.
Back in the present, another Queen track, “Fat Bottomed Girls,” is essentially weaponized; Clara blares it at full volume from her sound system, fighting back against the ruckus the land developers are making upstairs in their attempt to make her sell her place. This sequence is particularly pointed in the way it thematizes the music: Clara’s records become more than some hoarder’s stock; they’re an arsenal. And this notion seems especially appropriate to Brazil and its history—and to Mendonça Filho’s allusions to the Tropicalia artists of the 1960s and early ’70s, whose music itself was frequently an act of political protest.
All of this makes Aquarius sound like an angry movie, and it is: One scene finds Braga—who’s performance bests anyone else’s at Cannes this year—firing on all cylinders of fury, her Clara attacking the racist, classist assumptions of a young “business graduate” who’s used every dirty trick he can to drive the woman out of her home. But there’s also a lovely, natural tenderness to scenes with Clara and her immediate and extended family. In many of these scenes, again, it’s owned objects that conjure emotion.
A written dedication in one of Clara’s books causes her daughter, Ana Paula (Maeve Jinkings), to reconsider the argument she’s having with her mom; a lovely Antônio Carlos Jobim song on Clara’s record player immediately creates a connection between Clara and her nephew’s new girlfriend, who picked out the record; and in the 1980s-set prologue, the family matriarch, Aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez), casually glances at an old credenza and flashes on long ago sexual experiences with her late lover. Aquarius’s message is for a Brazil to recognize the strength and power of its heritage—to take action in repossessing the nation in order to insure its future.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 11—22.