Brazilian writer/director Kleber Mendonça Filho does not stray far from home in his latest film, “Aquarius.” The setting, once again, is the coastal city of Recife – Mendonça’s place of birth as well as the backdrop for his 2012 directorial debut “Neighboring Sounds.”
Rather than providing the same kind of panoramic compendium of his prior film, Mendonça keeps his focus tight on Sonia Braga’s Clara, a retired music critic and widow occupying a piece of prime waterfront real estate. Her memories and livelihood come from the apartment in which she resides, so she naturally resists the incursions of bloodthirsty real estate developers who will do anything to scoop up the property from underneath her. “Over her dead body” is no exaggeration when it comes to Clara’s tooth-and-nail fight to hold on to her home in the building dubbed Aquarius.
Mendonça abandons the breadth of “Neighboring Sounds,” but he does not necessarily replace it with depth in “Aquarius.” Where his ensemble drama had a sociologist’s eye for the way city life and modernity acted upon different classes of people, his character study overloads on allegory and skimps on personality. Though we spend nearly two and a half hours with Clara, she never takes on much of a life beyond her tenacious battle against the rapacious capitalist scourge. Erroneous scenes that attempt to clarify her character apart from this central conflict end up contributing little to our understanding of her. Braga gives a forceful performance, to be sure, but that can only go so far with a script that never fully provides her what she needs to dazzle. B /