The title of “Aquarius” refers to a two-story apartment complex, located in the Brazilian coastal city of Recife, that has clearly seen better days. By the end of Kleber Mendonça Filho’s gorgeous, ruminative new film, this endangered piece of real estate has come to feel like not just a milieu but a metaphor. Crumbling and nearly abandoned, it suggests the last gasp of a close-knit, community-focused way of life, one that is fast being leveled by a young generation with sharp business instincts, deep pockets and minimal regard for human consequences.
The last remaining resident of Aquarius, and the indomitable heroine of this movie, is a 65-year-old retiree named Clara, played to role-of-a-lifetime perfection by the great Sonia Braga. Her beauty toughened but undiminished by a life rich in happiness and heartache, Clara still lives in the family apartment she inherited from her aunt and shared with her late husband, surrounded by records, old photographs and other memorabilia from her long career as a music journalist.
We hear plenty of that music throughout “Aquarius,” whose soundtrack flows freely between classic rock tunes and Brazilian pop standards. A 1980-set beachfront idyll arrives with a blast of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” while “Hoje” (“Today”), by the late Brazilian singer-activist Taiguara, bookends the movie with a glorious surge of feeling.
Notably, the wall-to-wall music never feels merely decorative in a film with an almost Proustian understanding of how a favorite song — or, for that matter, a sacred space or a cherished piece of furniture — can become a repository of personal meaning.
Few things matter more to Clara than her memories, save perhaps her independence. Both of these are embodied by her apartment, which explains why she’s in no hurry to turn it over to Diego (Humberto Carrao), a smarmy young developer who’s hoping to add yet another high-rise to Recife’s rapidly changing skyline. To that end, Diego launches a slowly escalating campaign of harassment against Clara, setting in motion a clash of wills that Mendonça Filho sees through to a most satisfying comeuppance.
It’s thrilling to watch Clara stare down the system, greeting the developer’s simpering overtures with first a steely smile, then a well-earned blast of moral outrage. “Aquarius” presents her with no shortage of additional targets for her anger, from the racial and class-based disparities that have long held sway to the nepotism and corruption that have taken root in places of power.
That Mendonça Filho shares some of Clara’s dismay was clear enough when “Aquarius” premiered in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where the director and his cast publicly denounced the political upheaval at home, including the recent suspension of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. Mendonça Filho and other Brazilian filmmakers have since accused the interim government of interfering with the selection of Brazil’s Academy Awards entry in the foreign-language film race in order to punish “Aquarius,” which had been widely perceived as the logical candidate. (The selection committee wound up submitting David Schurmann’s “Little Secret.”)
Happily, there are reasons to see “Aquarius” beyond the pleasure of lodging a protest vote. Mendonça Filho, a former film critic, is both a gifted sensualist and an instinctively analytical storyteller, and in the course of just two features he has established himself as an unusually incisive chronicler of his country’s social malaise. His first feature, “Neighboring Sounds” (2012), was a brilliantly directed ensemble piece set in another Recife housing complex, which captured some of the tensions and contradictions of contemporary Brazilian society in microcosm.
While it gets at many of the same ideas, “Aquarius” is looser and mellower than its predecessor, less formally exacting and more classically told. And while it features a cast of more than 50 characters, many of them played by nonprofessional actors, it departs significantly from “Neighboring Sounds” by limiting its perspective to that of a single, dominant figure. Once you’ve cast a screen presence like Braga, a Brazilian acting legend best known for “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,” putting her front and center is the only decent thing to do.
With her radiantly stern mien and hard-to-win smile, Clara has the no-nonsense air of someone who’s long since stopped caring what anyone thinks of her, whether it’s the hustlers on her doorstep or even her three grown children, who to varying degrees encourage her to consider Diego’s offer. But as she enjoys a night out with her girlfriends or idly looks after her grandson, it’s clear that her tough, brittle veneer has done nothing to dull her astonishing capacity for joy, tenderness and desire.
In interviews and press materials, Mendonça Filho has playfully likened his film to a time-travel story. He consistently uses the subtlest, most ordinary effects — a musical trigger, a telling camera placement, a joltingly erotic flashback — to plant us deep within Clara’s memories, collapsing the distance between now and then.
Some might well accuse this stubbornly singular woman of living in the past, but to watch “Aquarius” is to see her surrendering again and again to the bliss of the present moment — never more so than in a final scene of thrilling, annihilating ferocity. Another one bites the dust, indeed.
In Portuguese with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood