Brazil’s defiant gem ‘Aquarius’ suffers Oscar snub after Cannes protest
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Acclaimed Brazilian film “Aquarius” opens in French cinemas on Wednesday, four months after its crew staged a brazen red-carpet protest in Cannes that ultimately scuppered its chances of Oscar glory.
The “Aquarius” controversy started with a protest back in May – the kind of red-carpet protocol breach that pricks the Cannes bubble of glamour, celebrity-swooning and general aloofness. “A coup took place in Brazil,” read a banner held aloft by the film’s cast and crew, referring to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. “We will resist,” warned another. The stunt was met by ecstatic applause inside the Grand Théâtre Lumière, where more banners sprang up. It provided a fitting introduction to a rich and beautiful movie ripe with simmering anger.
Months later, many feel director Kleber Mendonca Filho is being made to pay for his very public outcry, which drew both praise and outrage back home. First, Brazil’s justice ministry gave the film a rare and punitive 18-plus rating (banning the film for minors), citing scenes of drug use and sex – though it eventually lowered it to 16-plus after pressure from critics. Then the government’s Oscar committee chose to snub “Aquarius” for the Academy Awards, despite a slew of filmmakers withdrawing their own, highly-fancied entries in order to make way for Filho’s masterpiece.
The controversial decision is the latest twist in an escalating row that has seen “Aquarius” supporters hound Brazil’s culture minister with cries of “golpista” (or putschist) and conservative commentators urge a boycott of the “leftist” and “seditious” movie. One critic, who featured on the Oscar committee, blasted Filho’s crew for using public money to “ridicule” Brazil while “holidaying on the French Riviera”.
Meanwhile, Brazilian viewers have flocked to screenings of the movie, which has received standing ovations in cinemas across the country. “Aquarius” says nothing about the controversial impeachment procedure that led to Rousseff’s eviction, nor does it pass judgment on the country’s new rulers. But the turmoil in Brazil has given special resonance to a movie that ripples with calm and dignified rage against the dying of the light.
Space and identity
The rage and the light radiate from Dona Clara, the film’s commanding protagonist, an elegant and still very beautiful retired music critic, sumptuously portrayed by actress Sonia Braga. Clara lives in the Aquarius, a graceful old apartment building hemmed in between soulless condominiums in the seaside town of Recife. She reigns over her private fiefdom, mostly lying in a hammock while listening to a mix of classical music, Brazilian folk and Queen, surrounded by books, LPs and a lifetime of memories. Property developers are keen to knock the Aquarius down. They’ve bought out all the other tenants, but Clara defiantly resists both their lucrative offers and sinister threats.
Clara oozes dignity and panache. She is also arrogant and haughty, a character of wonderful complexity. The film is infused with nostalgia, but not conservative. The past is alive in Clara and the objects that surround her, but she is not withdrawn. She cherishes her old vinyl records but has no qualms about downloading mp3s. And she boldly clings on to the world around her, even as she rages against a form of materialism that has perverted the meaning of words and objects.
The Aquarius is not just “an apartment”, Clara says, rebuking her daughter who presses her to sell up. It is part of her fabric, the environment where she lived, loved, raised her children and battled cancer. Aside from Braga’s performance, portraying the relationship between space, objects, sounds and identity is perhaps the greatest strength of “Aquarius”. A marvellous scene early on in the film, in which Clara’s role model, her cherished aunt Lucia, gazes at a cupboard and silently recalls, in flashes, the great sex she had years before, is worth a viewing alone.
Filho’s second feature is many things at once: a rich character study, a meditation on age and loneliness (featuring a memorable gigolo scene), and a shrewd portrait of Brazil’s rapidly changing society, touching on themes of race, nepotism, corruption and the lure of money. It was unlucky to leave Cannes empty-handed, and Brazil’s toxic politics have now denied it a run at the foreign-language Oscar. Still, this richly rewarding film may yet have a shot at the Academy Awards; its US distributor suggested this week it will be touting Braga for Best Actress.