The old woman and the Sea

aquarius1There is an apartment house on the beachfront of Recife, Brazil. It’s from a time when houses still had names, and this one is called the Aquarius. Throughout the years, towering hotels have been built around it; tenants move out until there is only Clara left. Developers turn up, friendly but smarmy, but Clara does not want to sell. For Clara, home is a place. That is why the movie is called by the name of the house, Aquarius. It’s impossible to separate the woman and the house, but the developers don’t realize that yet. We all have something outside ourselves that defines us. With Clara, it’s the place she lives in. In Clara’s living room, there is a wooden chest of drawers on which Auntie Lucia, a family legend, once made love to her lover and future husband. That is not a source of ridicule, but a way to fondly remember the past.

aquarius4Clara gets regular visits from her grown kids who urge her to move out. It’s not safe, they say. There are burglars and drug dealers. Clara says no. All her children and friends know that they can never, ever use the term retirement home, or Clara will give them a piece of her mind. The second-best thing about Aquarius is how it avoids all the clichés of an old woman not wanting to sell her apartment. A lesser movie would depict her as a stubborn biddy, a little crazy, grey-haired, and with a cat as her only partner, and with a little help from her neighbours, she might find a solution to her problem. Instead, Aquarius gives you Sonia Braga, who will turn 67 this year. Her Clara is a music critic, with a whole living-room wall full of vinyl records and a number of musicians’ biographies to her name. Reporters still come and ask her opinion about music, and she explains that she likes MP3 files as much as she likes her vinyl collection. Sometimes she dances to some tunes, sometimes she goes for a swim in the surf, where the lifeguard falls in love with her, and sometimes she phones up men half her age when she feels like a one-night stand. Her housekeeper Ladjane is more a friend that her employee. Clara is very much a presence who speaks her mind. She has survived breast cancer, but she does not have the ‘new lease on life’ attitude of so many survivors. Her history with cancer is there, but it does not define her. It’s likely that Carla has always been this outspoken about right and wrong.

aquarius3There are problems. The junior developer and the caretaker and a drunken bunch of women and men enter the building and go to the topmost flat and have a party. Clara’s reaction? First, she has a glass of wine, then she puts on some music and cranks up the volume, and finally, when she realizes that there is a gangbang going on, she is turned on and has her way with a handsome young man. A lesser movie would make her call the police or the lawyers or would use some kind of trick. Instead, Clara knows which fights to pick, and when to go along with the general mood. If you have problems with senior citizens being naked or even having sex, this might not be the film for you.

aquarius2The next morning, there is human excrement in the stairwell. Some time later, the developers use the empty apartments as storeroom for mattresses, some of which will later be burnt in the courtyard, and the soot blackens the newly painted façade of the Aquarius which Clara had painted and paid for just days before. There are prayer groups filling the staircase. There is never any proof that the developers are behind this, but you cannot shake the feeling that they try to make Clara leave that way. She confronts the young developer Diego, and although his words sound kind and concerned, she picks them apart until there is not much left for him to say. The ending of the movie is foreseeable, but it is well-acted and ends on exactly the right note – of course, it ends the way Clara sees fit.

Sonia Braga’s performance is one that I will remember for some time, because it’s Sonia Braga, and because Clara is a well-written character. The movie, alas, has one big weakness: it clocks in at 2 hours and 22 minutes, and that is too long for a movie that features Braga in almost every scene. There are too many family gatherings and a night out with her woman friends that is too long. The movie seems shorter, but not short enough. Other than that, Aquarius is a sort of hommage to Sonia Braga, and deservedly so.

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