Under Siege: The Home as Battleground in Aquarius

Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius (2016), “one of the most influential films in recent Brazilian history” (Winterbottom 2017, 82), became the centre of heated political and public debate, even before it officially premiered in its home country. The film’s conveyance of (political) resistance, however, is far more subtle, mature, and nuanced than the turmoil surrounding its release and reception would suggest.

Aquarius tells a very personal narrative of a woman ‘under siege’ being forced out of her apartment by a redevelopment company without making explicit references to politics. Yet the film successfully elevates its narrative into an allegorical tale of resistance against all kinds of spatial invasion, including structural political expulsion, by linking the apartment complex with the woman’s extended bodily self. By weaving the socio-economic mechanisms of gentrification together with questions of personal identity, memory, and history the film constructs a modern-day battle ground, where the simple refusal to sell your apartment becomes a symbolic act of resistance against the intrusion of personal space. With Aquarius Mendonça Filho cemented the position he earned with the critically acclaimed O Som ao Redor (Neighbouring Sounds, 2012) as the modern master of the exploration of the social contestation of spaces—a topic that was given yet another spin with his latest feature Bacurau (2019), which he co-directed with Juliano Dornelles.

In a manner typical of the urban ‘apartment plot’, where “the space of the apartment not only motivates action but projects and delimits a character’s identity, in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and class” (Wojcik 2018, 5; see also 2010), Aquarius weaves together material objects, buildings, and artefacts with memory, affection, and personal history. Titled after the apartment building, where the main protagonist, Clara Amorim de Melo (Sônia Braga), lives, Aquarius demonstrates how buildings ‘frame’ our lives and reflect “the identities, differences and struggles of gender, class, race, culture and age” but also socio-political issues such as “the interests of people in empowerment and freedom, the interests of the state in social order, and the private corporate interest in stimulating consumption” (Dovey 2008, 1).

The film is thus an example of how the cinematic representation of domestic space has become “a key element for the negotiation of class, race, gender, family, work, community and sexuality” (Baschiera and De Rosa 2020, 2). In this article, I will examine how the coupling of the ageing Aquarius building with that of Clara’s physical body becomes an analogy of how political, economic, and social dynamics penetrate the domestic space and intrude upon our most private, intimate, and affective spheres. In this fashion, the film presents a radical politicization of the ‘apartment plot’. However, it is not just on the level of the narrative that the film must be perceived in the context of the political reality of Brazil anno 2016.

The Cannes Protest and Political Sabotage

When Aquarius premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, director Kleber Mendonça Filho along with the cast and crew of the film staged a protest on the red carpet condemning the suspension of former president Dilma Rousseff in their home country Brazil. The members of the Aquarius delegation were holding up signs in multiple languages that read messages such as: “Brazil is experiencing a coup d’etat”; “Brazil is not a democracy anymore”; and “Chauvinists, scammers and monsters as ministers” (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Aquarius is one of the most politicized and controversial films in recent Brazilian history not least because of the staged protest at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival condemning the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff.

Even before the world had laid its eyes on the film, it had become a symbol of the political crisis looming in Brazil. Presumably as a punishment of the public protest, the Justice Ministry of Brazil’s interim government gave the film an unusually restrictive 18+ rating, which made Mendonça Filho denounce how his film was being “sabotaged by the illegitimate government” (Mendonça Filho in Fuente et al. 2016).

Eventually, the interim government adjusted the rating to 16+, yet at this point the controversies surrounding the film had been fuelled even more by the Ministry of Culture’s decision to hire film critic Marcos Petrucelli – who had raged against the Cannes-protest calling it a “lie about the coup” that only served “to expose Brazil to ridicule” (cf. Mango 2016) – for the election committee that would choose the country’s contender for the Best Foreign Film at the Oscars; de facto leaving Aquarius out of contention.­­ As an act of sympathy with Aquarius several Brazilian filmmakers withdrew their contention for the Oscar nomination bid. As director Gabriel Mascaro justified the decision on social media, he felt a “discomfort with participating in a selection process of questionable impartiality” (cf. Mango 2016). At this point Aquarius had become a “central feature of political debate in Brazil” and had raised serious concerns about the “processes of democracy and censorship and how they manifest on the cultural landscape” (Winterbottom 2017, 80). Paradoxically, the film had achieved this without having been seen by the public including key debaters such as Petrucelli — a situation that naturally changed once the film in a Dylanesque ‘simple twist of faith’ premiered in Brazil on the 1st of September 2016; exactly the day after the Senate had officially removed President Rousseff from office.

Aquarius, Aquarius, and the New Aquarius

In the context of the controversies the film caused, audiences might have expected Aquarius to deliver a more vigorous, anarchistic, and univocal political message. The film, however, is not overtly political but tells the story of Clara, a 65-year old retired music writer, survivor of breast cancer, mother of three, and grandmother. The main narrative thread concerns Clara’s fight against the property developer, Geraldo (Fernando Teixeira), who owns the company Bonfim, which plans to tear down the Aquarius; the timeworn, but perfectly adequate, apartment building in which Clara now lives as the sole remaining tenant. As Diego (Humberto Carrão), the good-looking, always smiling, business educated grandson of Geraldo, who has newly been appointed the leader of the ‘New Aquarius’ high-rise project, tells Clara during their first meeting, “We keep the name of the building that used to exist in this spot” and adds, “it’s a way of preserving the memory of the building”. For the property redevelopers, Clara’s apartment already exists in the past tense, yet for Clara, the last occupant of the ‘Old Aquarius’, it is a living trace of her past and complete with cultural and historical significance as well as personal emotional and affective value—a value more important to Clara than Bonfim’s ‘above-the-market-value’ offer for the property (fig. 2).  

Fig. 2: Aquarius centres around the notion of domestic space as an extension of the bodily self. Here Clara is seen in perfect harmony with the apartment complex, Aquarius, that is the focal point of the film’s narrative.

Much of the film dwells on Clara’s apartment and uses it as the occasion to visit various moments of past and present thus providing us with a sense of her daily routines and the memories that are woven into the material fabric of her home. We learn that her determination to stay in the apartment not only disappoints Bonfim but also people close to her. Clara’s former neighbours believe her decision to stay to be egoistic, because their buyout fee, or parts of it, is being withheld by Bonfim until the apartment is completely free of occupants. Her adult children pressure Clara to accept Bonfim’s offer on the pretence that they worry about the security of her living in a “ghost apartment”, although their real motivation appears to be financial. Clara’s daughter, Ana Paula (Maeve Jenkins), who has been through an expensive divorce, particularly advocates for selling the apartment; a proposition that is not received well by her ill-tempered mother. As the film unfolds, what appears to be an individual decision turns out to be interwoven with a complex set of other interests that have turned Clara’s private space into a contested social space.

The Bodily Trace of Time

Despite the deep politicization of the film, it is less about politics than the affective traces that the past carves into the material and physical world. In what is probably the most famous philosophical treatise on intimate places, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1994, French original 1958), the author writes, “An entire past comes to dwell in a new house (5)”. Bachelard then continues with a sentence that perfectly encapsulates the narrative structure of Aquarius:

Thus the house is not experienced from day to day only, on the thread of a narrative, or in the telling of our own story. Through dreams, the various dwelling-places in our lives co-penetrate and retain the treasures of former days (5).

As film critic Robert Koehler (2016) observes, Aquarius “contains a keen sense of history, and how the fundamental questions of identity and personal physical space can tie together memory and objects, music and the body, and how family itself is a living embodiment of history” (para. 3). Although the story leaps through various ‘sheets of the past’ (Deleuze 2005), the language of the film refrains from stylistic excess as it carefully elaborates on both positive and negative aspects of Clara’s personality. While Aquarius by no means romanticises or mythologises its main character, it aligns itself with her sentiment.

One example of this is the film’s opening montage, which consists of black-and-white photographs of Boa Viagem (the beachfront neighborhood of Recife known for buildings like the Aquarius) in all its 1950s architectural pride full of broad boulevards, beach life, and playgrounds. On the soundtrack Taiguara’s song “Hoje”, which together with the vintage photographs bathe Boa Viagem in nostalgic vigor, explicates the central theme of the film with the lines: “Hoje, trago em meu corpo as marcas do meu tempo” [“Today, I carry in my body the marks of my time”]. Although the opening segment stands in no causal-narrative relation to the rest of the film, it establishes the world of Clara and her rootedness in the Boa Viagem neighborhood during the ‘dawning of the age of Aquarius’; the age of sexually liberated, politically progressive, and independent women like her. The scene is in many ways a “visit to Clara’s past” (Mendonça Filho in Koehler, 2016, para. 8) that puts us into the affective ‘state of mind’ of the Boa Viagem neighborhood and thereby aids an appreciation of the emotional value Clara attaches to the apartment, the building, and the neighborhood in which it is situated (fig. 3-5).

Fig. 3-5: The film’s opening montage is an ode to the historical and architectural pride of the Boa Viagem neighbourhood as a community-oriented and liveable breathing space in the city.]
Fig. 4.
Fig. 5.

From its opening segment and onwards the film accentuates how the past continues to inscribe itself into the present through bodily traces; the affective value of cherished material and physical objects; and in the continuation of socio-cultural practices. This notion of time leaving its trace on the material, physical, social, and bodily world also becomes a structuring device for the film’s narration as it jumps in time between the 1980s and the present motivated by how certain spaces and artefacts like ‘Proustian madeleines’ transport us to past moments. In one exemplary scene, the film dwells on an antique cupboard that brings us to a particularly pleasant sexual encounter Clara’s aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez) enjoyed nearly fifty years ago (fig. 6-8).

Fig. 6-8: Aquarius is dramaturgically structured around the ability of material objects to bring us in contact with our past. Here a cupboard takes Clara’s aunt Lucia back to a particularly pleasant moment of her youth during a speech at her 70th birthday.
Fig. 7.
Fig. 8.

Clara’s mastectomy following her cancer treatment is another explicit evidence of how the theme of ‘wearing the scars of time on our bodies’ is treated in the film. In Aquarius, the past is also preserved by certain socio-cultural practices of the intellectual bourgeoisie to which Clara belongs. Despite her progressive mind-set and the cordiality expressed, Clara’s relation to her maid (Zoraide Coleto) is an anachronistic remnant from the days of colonial exploitation such that “the past flows into the present in terms of social practices, just as it does in the film through music, photographs, furniture, apartments, and so on” (Dennison 2018, 337).

Mendonça Filho situates the film’s recurrent theme of the traces of the past against the backdrop of economic and political pressure for urban redevelopment — the tearing down of historic, architectural traces of the past to give way to the new, modern white high-rises that contrast the Boa Viagem of the present with that displayed in the film’s nostalgic opening montage. Consequently, Clara’s personal story is inscribed into the larger socio-political context of ‘contested urban spaces’ and the neoliberal demand for ‘urban renaissance’ that occurs everywhere from Recife to New Delhi and Berlin (see Mendes and Lau 2020). Clara’s decision to decline Bonfim’s offer can thus be taken as a symbolic act of political resistance, because the audience recognizes the Aquarius building not just as a space but an inhabited place of personal identity “heavily invested with emotions and attached to meanings given through cultural processes” (Mendes and Lau 2020, 6).

The examination of three key scenes will help demonstrate how the domestic space of the film evolves from the sphere of the intimate (domestic spaces as intimate space), to the physical-bodily (domestic space as extended bodily space), and finally into the public sphere of the socio-economic (domestic space as political, contested space). This evolution perfectly fits with the film’s own history of going from being a narrative about a woman ‘under siege’ by real estate investors to becoming one of the most controversial Brazilian films in recent history.

The Intrusion of Intimate Space

The first of these scenes depicts the initial encounter between Clara and Bonfim and it ties Clara’s apartment to the notion of intimate space. Looming under the friendly surface appearance of politeness and respect, Mendonça Filho stages this encounter as a form of intrusion of intimate space. The scene begins with a deep focus displaying Clara’s sleeping face in the foreground and Diego taking pictures of the building on the street from the outside (fig. 9). 

Fig. 9: The intrusion of private space enframed. Clara is dozing in her hammock, while Diego is photographing the Aquarius from the outside.

In a new shot, Diego meets with Geraldo and the caretaker of the building from a somewhat distanced bird’s-eye perspective, then the camera tracks into the apartment, where Clara is sleeping on a hammock with the window wide open, over to her couch, before it finally faces the door at which point the doorbell rings to suddenly wake Clara from her drowse. The way the camera tracks from the outdoor, public space into the intimate zone of the apartment, where Clara sleeps as defenselessly as easy prey, lends the scene a sentiment of space being intruded.

The soundtrack adds to the impression of intimate space being invaded. At first the sound of the ocean and leaves whistling in the wind suggest calmness and relaxation, but soon this soundscape is drowned out by the growing noise of footsteps on concrete, doors being opened and closed, footsteps on the staircase, the clinging of keys, and indiscernible distant voices. Even before we learn about the intentions of Bonfim, the film has singled out their presence as a disruption to Clara’s harmonious domestic existence. While the narrative information of this segment could have been delivered in many ways, the feeling of intrusion is a result of how the filmic space is formed according to the filmmakers’ intention to create a scene, where “[t]he apartment is a woman, and there are men trying to come in. The whole idea of rape and violation is very much present in the film” (Mendonça Filho in Graham, 2017). The notion of intrusion of the intimate sphere as a form of bodily assault becomes even more explicit in the next scene to be examined, where Clara discovers that Bonfim has infested the building with termites and left it in a state of certain decay.

The Aquarius as an Extended Bodily Self

The second scene follows from a series of attempts by Bonfim to force Clara out of her apartment (including lending the neighboring apartment out for a sex party). In a tracking shot from behind, we see Clara being followed by two men. The men, now former employees of Bonfim, inform Clara that a few months earlier they were hired to do an unusual job bringing “some material” to her apartment building. Too afraid to say more, they encourage Clara to break into one of the apartments and see for herself. With the help of friends and her lawyer, Clara breaks into one of the abandoned apartments to discover with shock and devastation the state of decay the building is in due to a severe spread of termite infestation. In this single moment of realization that the ‘Old Aquarius’ is beyond repair, past, present, and future merge. Clara realizes that she will no longer be able to live in her apartment and we recognize that she has not just lost her home but a part of her personal history, identity, and past. All this condenses as the film zooms in on the termite activity as the rattling, rustling, clicking, and buzzing noise of the insects takes over the soundtrack. As we hear the activity of the termites eating away the ‘Old Aquarius’, the association to cancer cells invading the body is clearly present although not explicitly evoked (fig. 10). In this moment, Clara realizes the battle against Bonfim has been lost, yet she refuses a silent defeat and changes the battleground from her own domestic space to the Bonfim offices and the public mediated sphere.

Fig. 10: The Aquarius building is treated as an organism that suffers from an unhealable termite ‘cancer’ and thus becomes associated with Clara’s own fight against this disease in the early 1980s.

The Socio-Political Ramifications of Urban Redevelopment

Aquarius demonstrates how the personal and the public, the local and the global intertwine. Despite her privileged position in society as part of the ‘creative class’, Clara is vulnerable to a new neoliberal generation pushing for ‘urban renaissance’ and gentrification. Thus, as Richard Florida (2004) has argued in his influential study of the ‘creative class’, “with gentrification comes an out-migration of bohemians” (25, author’s emphasis). This generational paradigm shift is manifested in the shifting architectural styles between the Aquarius and the white modern high rises of the new-Aquarius. Thus, when Bonfim has the Aquarius painted white, the artillery used in the contestation of space is architectural and aesthetic (fig. 11).  

Fig. 11: The Aquarius is being repainted to fit with the new monochrome look of Boa Viagem.

In narrative terms, this conflict reaches its dramatic climax as Clara, accompanied by her lawyer, Cleide Vieira (Carla Ribas), her nephew Tomás (Pedro Querioz), and her brother Antonio (Buda Lira), decides to confront Geraldo and Diego with their methods upfront in the film’s final scene. The kind, welcoming pretense of Geraldo and Diego as they greet the company in their impressive Bonfim office is upheld only until Tomás calls the two of them “complete bastards”. Geraldo replies: “You’re not at home. Respect me, or I’ll lose respect for you. You are being disrespectful in my own house.” Following this ironic insistence on respecting one’s ‘domestic space’, Clara conducts her prepared act of final resilience.

The subtle link to cancer through the termites now becomes explicit, as Clara states, “I survived cancer. More than 30 years ago. And these days, I have been thinking about something. I’d rather give you cancer than having it myself.” She proceeds by opening a suitcase full of the termite infested planks, while Tomás films the act with his mobile phone with the intention of disseminating the images on social media platforms thereby ‘infesting’ the reputation of the company. This time the buzzling and the crippling of the termites remain unheard and instead Taiguara’s song “Hoje” once again takes over the soundtrack as he sings about carrying the bodily traces of time. At this point, the film has reached a temporal depth that allows the final act to become an allegory of resistance where, as in Herman Melville’s short-story Bartleby, the Scrivener (1853), the rebellious act rests upon the simple sentence: ‘I prefer not to’.

Conclusion

Aquarius was written and filmed before the impeachment process against Rousseff began. It was politicized due to the protest staged by the crew and the cast in Cannes. However, the film’s insistence on the necessity of saying ‘no’ combined with its time of release, first in Cannes and later in Brazil, during a period of great political unrest caused the film to become organically entwined in real world affairs. The film struck a nerve in an increasingly divided Brazilian society and, in the words of its director, provided a voice to the growing anxiety against “power, corruption, [and] individuality” (Mendonça Filho in Dennison 2017). With its archetypical ‘David versus Goliath dramaturgy’, Aquarius was received through the lenses of the political turmoil, where another woman and survivor of cancer, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached. It became symbolic of a country that, following Petra Costa’s award-winning 2019-documentrary, is spiralling towards The Edge of Democracy. In the months after its premiere in Brazil, the discussions around Aquarius “became a political point of reference that was symbolic of a broader malaise in Brazil and that also gestured towards an atmosphere of (moral) decadence and decay” (Winterbottom 2017, 82). Eventually, Aquarius is not just a film about a contested space, it itself became a contested space. In the process, Aquarius forcefully reminds us of the affective, historical, and cultural past of spaces, buildings, and homes. And even if the ‘Old Aquarius’ of the film was no longer to be saved in the film, a successful public petition to save the actual, real-life Aquarius building, Edifício Oceania, from demolition was granted and it now figures on the tourist map of Recife (cf. Winterbottom 2017).

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Facts

  • Aquarius premiered in Cannes on May 17, 2016 and in Brazil on September 1, 2016.
  • On April 17, 2016, the formal impeachment of Dilma Rousseff occured.
  • On May 12, 2016, the Senate voted to suspend Rousseff for the duration of the trial.
  • On August 31, 2016, Rousseff was officially removed from office.

Films

  • Aquarius (dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2016).
  • Neighbouring Sounds (O Som ao Redor, dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012).
  • Bacurau (dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles, 2019).
  • The Edge of Democracy (Democracia em Vertigem, Petra Costa, 2019).

Literature

Acknowledgments

  • The author would like to thank Gustavo Jardim and an anonymous peer reviewer for comments and criticisms on an earlier draft of this article.

Steffen Hven is Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. Hven holds a PhD (2015) from Bauhaus-Universität Weimar and an MA from Aarhus University (2010). He is the author of Cinema and Narrative Complexity: Embodying the Fabula (Amsterdam University Press, 2017). His second book, Enacting the Worlds of Cinema, is scheduled to be published by Oxford University Press in 2021.