‘Aquarius’ Cannes Review: Sonia Braga Stubbornly Stays Sexy in Her Golden Years

Star seems poised for a Cannes Best Actress win in Brazilian director Kleber Mendonca Filho’s breezy film

With the Cannes Film Festival more than halfway done, the talk around town will soon be overwhelmed by questions about Sunday night’s closing ceremony. From here on out, it’s all, “Who is the favorite for the Palme d’Or?” and “What’s going to be the upset?” and “Will the emcee make another tasteless joke?” (Even money on that one.)

But now that “Aquarius” has screened, there is at least one question that must be somewhat modified. We need no longer ask who will win the best actress award, but rather, when Sonia Braga does win, what will she say?

One would imagine she’ll thank writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho, who threw the perfect pitch for her to knock out the park. In “Aquarius,” a film about staying fit, sexy and fierce north of 65, he offered the role that actors of a certain age dream of.

The film starts with a flashback that is also something of a thesis statement. It’s 1980 and thirtyish Clara (Bárbara Colen) is attending Aunt Lucia’s 70th birthday party in the Aquarius apartment complex. As members of the family stand and offer their heartfelt tributes, they all refer to Lucia and her accomplishments in the past tense, as if she’s already a relic.

The director then cuts to Lucia’s inner thoughts at the moment, viscerally X-rated memories that stand in stark contrast to the portrait of the nodding senior depicted by her young nieces and nephews. Aunt Lucia is more than she’s made out to be.

Cut to the present day, and Clara (now played by Braga) has in effect become her aunt. She is widowed, retired and living in the same apartment at the Aquarius, and the rest of the film is her reckoning with the way social forces think someone in her position ought to be and the way she really is. It’s less “How Clara Got Her Groove Back” than “Clara’s Groove Was Never Gone.”

Filho’s definition of groove is more than simply carnal. For Clara, who has seen family and friends die and lost one of her breasts to cancer, it’s about remaining in firm control of her life. That means refusing to sell her Aquarius apartment to a powerful group of developers who have managed to buy every other unit in the complex and are trying to force her out. It’s about resisting the narrative that aging women do what they’re told, or the lie that bodies scarred by disease are unworthy of love.

Clara’s headstrong assurance and her escalating battle with the developers mark the thin plot of this otherwise loose, sea breeze of a film. Its languid pace befits the Recife setting, and Filho sets many scenes on long walks down the coast or just after a particularly satisfying mid-day nap. His world is filled with music, dance and wine, and if the film takes a some time to get where it’s going, the beachfront setting remains a pleasant place to stay.

Call it an escapist tale about stubbornly staying put.