Acclaimed Brazilian film makes splash despite political battles and cries of censorship

An internationally acclaimed Brazilian film received the equivalent of an X rating, perhaps because of a political stand taken by the cast. But despite the controversy and alleged censorship surrounding Kleber Mendonca Filho’s “Aquarius,” it has made a big splash at the box office in a large and growing market that usually has more conservative tastes.

“I think it is extremely suspect,” Mendonca Filho said of the rating. “I didn't see the backdoor conversations, I don't know if anyone was given an order to censor us, but the rating simply makes no sense.”

As he spoke, sitting on the patio of a Sao Paulo theater while promoting the film just before it came out in early September, protesters were lighting fires and blocking roads around the city.

The filmmaker, a native of the city of Recife in Brazil's poorer northeastern region, managed to make it through traffic to downtown despite the spirited demonstrations against the impeachment of center-left President Dilma Rousseff

Smoking and wearing Ray-Bans, he said that Brazil's artists and entertainers, who have broadly united in forceful opposition to the new, more conservative government of Michel Temer, have been the victim of misguided attacks.

“Even in the major press, people have begun to spread the extremely toxic rumor that all of culture, and everyone who produces culture, are not just people who happen to have left-leaning beliefs, but rather are small soldiers of a political apparatus serving a particular party.”

Like Mendonca Filho’s other feature-length films,  “Aquarius” is set in Recife’s upwardly mobile Boa Viagem beach neighborhood, where sharks lurk just off the coast and the historical violence of Brazil's brutal class system is always present just below the surface. It's the perfect setting to take a long, hard look at the social transformations unleashed during Brazil's tumultuous 21st century.

 The plot of the film ended up echoing political events in Brazil in ways that its creator couldn’t have expected. In it, the grand villain is a rapacious construction company that is determined to remove a cultured journalist from her home in the Aquarius building at all costs, demolish it, and develop the land. She resists forcefully.

Mendonca Filho could not have known while making the film that a massive corruption investigation, centered on a construction company, would soon reveal multibillion-dollar corruption schemes leading to the imprisonment of their executives — and that Brazil's public life would soon be dominated by the scene of Brazil's first female president defiantly challenging an impeachment process that ultimately removed her from power.

“Really, I hadn't been thinking much about the Car Wash [corruption probe] when we made it,” said the director. “And the similarity with Dilma [Rousseff], who is being evicted, was really impressive. It's really taken people aback, but of course it's an enormous, gigantic coincidence.”

“Aquarius” is on track to be the highest-grossing film in its category this year, though it will surely fall behind the Hollywood films and locally produced comedies that traditionally dominate the world's eighth-largest box-office market. The film also has generated significant awards buzz, though its chances for an Oscar have been quashed by political controversy.

In May at Cannes, Mendonca Filho and the cast and crew – including Sonia Braga, who makes a forceful return to Brazilian screens as the critic who is being evicted – held up signs on the red carpet reading, “Brazil is experiencing a coup d'etat” and, “The world cannot accept this illegitimate government.”

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Though the film received near-unanimous praise in Brazil, the Ministry of Culture – now controlled by Rousseff's more conservative replacement – put a critic on Brazil's Oscar nominating committee who had denounced the Cannes protest and the film's politics.

In protest, three Brazilian directors withdrew their own films from contention. In the end, Brazil will send “Little Secret” to Hollywood — a film considered far less significant by critics in Brazil and abroad.

Even during a years-long, punishing recession, Brazilian movie audiences have grown, jumping 8.5% from 2014 to 170.7 million tickets sold in 2015 and generating $700 million in revenues, according to Filme B, a Brazilian site that tracks cinema news and box-office returns. The uptick in movie viewing is due in part to the construction of new theaters, and most of that revenue is generated by lighter, mostly foreign, fare. 

“American blockbusters, especially superhero films and animated flicks for children tend to dominate the top market spots. And among Brazilian films, comedies are almost never beaten,” said Paulo Sergio Almeida, director of Filme B. “Films like ‘Aquarius,’ which use a different cinematic language, have had a limited chance at major figures. They don't make it into the heartland of the country, since they won't be shown in smaller theaters.”

Major recent exceptions to the rule that Hollywood and local comedy dominate have been “The Ten Commandments,” a religious epic – and the only Brazilian film in the 2016 box office top 10 so far this year – and the “Elite Squad” series, which deals with police activity in violent favelas, or slums. The second installment was a box office hit in 2010.

“Aquarius” has landed at a special moment for Brazilian cinema and Brazilian history, says Ana Lucia Andrade, a professor of photography, film, and cinema at the Minas Gerais Federal University in Brazil.

“There is a growing moment in Brazilian cinema for both authorial and accessible films,” Andrade said. “They explore our cultural diversity as well as our social problems with different narrative structures.”

In 2015, “The Second Mother,” the country's Oscar submission, also took a close look at class in social relations, focusing on middle-class families and the servants they employ, and did just as well at the box office as “Aquarius.”

In its first month, “Aquarius” sold more than 300,000 tickets, approaching the recent record set for Brazilian art films by “The Second Mother,” and making about as much as a modern Woody Allen film, said Almeida at Filme B.

During Brazil's dictatorship, which controlled the country from the 1960s to the 1980s, writers and artists faced censorship. Now Brazil's film community may skew further left than Hollywood.

In the first months of the Temer government, thousands of artists and their supporters occupied cultural sites around the country. Intellectuals and entertainers attacked Temer — Wagner Moura, the Brazilian actor who stars as Pablo Escobar in “Narcos,” made viral videos denouncing the new president.

Conservative commentators ridiculed them as corrupt stooges, while ineffectively calling for a boycott of “Aquarius.”

For the director, this is one more sign that Brazil's democracy, just like the film's titular building, may be facing demolition.

“The cast, Sonia, and the artistic class are being treated like criminals.” he said. “Our protest in Cannes was so simple and symbolic. We didn't hurt anyone, we didn't burn anything. But we seem to have struck a nerve.”

Bevins is a special correspondent

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