Forty years ago, Sonia Braga starred in “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands.” The Brazilian movie, a soft-focus but smarty skewed sex comedy, became an international hit and launched Braga’s career. (She was nominated for a BAFTA as Best Leading Newcomer.) Nearly a decade later, she became a familiar figure to American art house audiences in a double role opposite Oscar-winning William Hurt in “Kiss of the Spider-Woman.” In both roles, Braga exhibited an unapologetic, earthy sensuality and a self-conscious dignity, traits that don’t often easily mix.
Now, however, the 66-year-old Braga embodies them once again in “Aquarius,” a textured, impressive drama that provides the iconic star with her best role in decades, and puts the lie once again to the fact that great (or at least near-great) movies can’t be centered on performances from mature female actors.
Braga plays Dona Clara, a widowed, retired music critic living in a fantastic apartment across the street from the beach in the coastal city of Recife. Her apartment is, and has been for some time, the last remaining occupied unit in the building, but Clara refuses to sell to the development company intent on tearing it down and replacing it. This makes “Aquarius” sound like a straightforward social-issue drama, but it’s just as much a character study, as Clara reflects on her life while interacting with her adult children, her nephew, her friends, and her trusty housekeeper Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto, very endearing).
There’s a bittersweet nostalgia to much of “Aquarius,” but moments of sharp humor as well. When the developers decide to hold a blaring rave/porn shoot in the apartment above Clara’s to intimidate her, she fires up her phonograph and blasts them back with Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls.” Clara, and Braga, both boldly embrace things that others might think them too old for, like relaxing at the end of the day with a joint or hiring a well-endowed male prostitute to ease a lonely night.
I’ve seen recent performances from Annette Bening (“20th Century Women”), Isabelle Huppert (“Elle,” “Things to Come”), and Braga that put Hollywood’s treatment of mature women to shame. At the same time, these films prove that the roles are out there, if you know where to look.
“Aquarius” was directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, whose work I hadn’t been familiar with (this is only his second feature). But he does more than just allow Braga to work her magic. He handles several group dialogue scene with clarity, conjures memorable supporting characters without taking up too much screen time, and imbues the locale–especially the all-important location of Clara’s apartment–with personality and depth.
The movie gained some notoriety when members of its cast and crew held up signs at May’s Cannes Film Festival protesting the then-suspension of Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff. Following Rousseff’s impeachment, “Aquarius” was initially slapped with the equivalent of an NC-17 rating, and was passed over by the country’s selection committee as its submission for the Best Foreign Language FIlm Oscar. (In an odd bit of irony, the committee was chaired by veteran filmmaker Bruno Barretto, who directed Braga way back when in “Dona Flor.”)
Perhaps inspired by their protagonist’s perseverance, the makers of “Aquarius” didn’t back down, and the ensuing controversy, as it so often does, has only helped the film’s domestic box office, turning it into a symbol of art’s willingness to stand up against political oppression. (Are you listening, Hollywood?) While it may not be eligible for the Foreign Language prize, there are whispers that Braga could be a dark horse candidate for Best Actress. That seems unlikely, especially considering the strong field this year, but should a nomination come to pass, it would be an honor thoroughly deserved for a performer of stamina and panache.
(“Aquarius” opens Friday, Dec. 9, at Cinema 21)
142 minutes, not rated, in Portuguese with English subtitles. GRADE: B+