REVIEW: Aquarius

25 11 2016

aquariusBrazilian 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. B2halfstars

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 12, 2016)

12 05 2016

Neighboring SoundsFrom the opening archival photos in “Neighboring Sounds,” writer/directorKleber Mendonça Filho positions the story in a long history of extreme wealth inequality. We see the construction of palatial estates for the wealthy, which were of course built on the backs of workers who made practically nothing.

The fault lines of class in America are felt, but not always seen. Such is not the case in the Brazil of this film, where wealth inequality in a coastal city is starkly defined by staggering differences in property. The wealthy and the poor are not stratified in different spheres on influence; instead, they live in close proximity. Even quite literally bordering on each other.

This setting might seem the perfect one for a battle of the haves and the have nots. But in the hands of Mendonca, the story of “Neighboring Sounds” focuses less on clashes and more on coexistence. After all, it’s the default setting for their society. This approach leads to fascinating observations, enough to earn its status as my pick for “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

From a rich realtor contending with CD player thievery that weirds out his latest fling to a strung-out homemaker who just wants the dog on the other side of the fence to shut up, everybody in Recife really wants the same things. Safety and privacy are the two concerns at the top of mind, yet both are indicative of a larger issue. Everyone wants some elbow room, the hottest commodity in town. And, perhaps not by accident, virtually all of it remains in the control of a wealthy, landed aristocrat festering away on a platation outside the city.

Little happens in “Neighboring Sounds,” save the introduction of a new private security firm into the neighborhood. Created to fill a perceived need for existential protection, they uncover many of the sleeping giants lurking inside the community that awaken to cause friction. All the while, Mendonca remains remarkably attuned to the minutiae that define modern urban life. His film has the same intersecting lives feel as Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s 2000 Mexico-set film “Amores Perros,” but without that director’s suffocating and forced projection of cosmic fate onto the proceedings. It’s natural how these tales intertwine and overlap, forming a discordant but honest city symphony.