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Fighting For Our Rights: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Sônia Braga on “Aquarius”

When the Brazilian drama “Aquarius” premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, it received rave reviews for its director, Kleber Mendonça Filho, and sublime leading lady, Sônia Braga. Four years after his acclaimed debut, “Neighboring Sounds,” Filho has crafted another intimate epic about the lives of people in an apartment. Yet one notable difference is that “Aquarius” revolves around a single heroine, Clara (Braga), who refuses to be evicted by an encroaching company with plans to demolish the building. From its provocative opening scenes to its rousing finale, Filho’s sophomore feature effort is a captivating showcase for Braga, a three-time Golden Globe-nominee best known to U.S. audiences for 1985’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” though she can also be currently seen as Soledad Temple on Netflix’s hit series, “Luke Cage.” 

During last month’s Toronto International Film Festival, Filho and Braga spoke with about their fight with Brazilian censors, using time wisely and the importance of preserving history.

One of our writers, Pablo Villaça, published an article about how the distribution of “Aquarius” could be threatened by dirty politics in Brazil.

Kleber Mendonça Filho (KF): I read that article, and it was written before the film was released on September 1st. Now I can tell you, eleven days later, that the film is very, very successful. We had the highest per-screen average of last week’s releases. I think we reached 150,000 tickets last night, which is very good for a smaller release. But it had a bit of a rocky arrival in cinemas because we were given the 18+ rating, which did not make any sense in terms of the Brazilian rating system for a film like this. 

Sônia Braga (SB): They show things on TV, even in prime time, that are—I wouldn’t say more or less [explicit] because I’m not one to judge—but they aren’t any worse than what you see in the film.  

KF: As far as “Aquarius” is concerned, I made it tricky because the actual images of sexuality are quite strong, though the film is not about sexuality. Clara is not some nymphomaniac, and the film isn’t “Looking for Mr. Goodbar.” Her sexuality is simply a normal part of who she is, and it is shown in fleeting moments. When you actually see it, it is quite strong, but there’s nothing really pornographic about it. They are high-impact yet very short moments of sexuality, which makes it very confusing for the censors. If censors were merely human beings who watch a film and come out with a conclusion about what they saw, then there wouldn’t be a problem. But that’s not how it works. It’s as if the film is fed into a machine, and then a report comes back saying, “You can see a guy with a hard-on, and you can also see a woman’s vagina.” That sort of technical approach is what led us to receive the 18+ rating in Brazil, which I think is completely wrong and unfair. 

SB: Nobody who comes out of the movie focuses on those scenes, because they are not the heart of the film. They are a consequence of the story, but I don’t remember hearing audiences talking about them afterward. They came out discussing themes of resistance, history and memory. They’re talking about the beauty of the self and how it can become demolished. We did receive some questions about the film’s sexuality in Cannes, but they came from the press rather than audiences. 

KF: The rating was eventually brought down to 16 after the third appeal. Everything blew up after the second appeal because the press picked it up and spurred suspicions of persecution.

Whereas so many of this year’s Hollywood blockbusters wasted their two and a half hours by packing in as many poorly developed plot lines as possible, “Aquarius” utilizes the same running time in a much more immersive way. How do you approach working with time in your films?

KF: It’s an interesting question. When I wrote the script, it seemed to hold people’s interest. We are here together now because Sônia liked the script—

SB: I didn’t like the script, I loved it. [laughs]

KF: She reacted in a beautiful way to the draft I sent her, so we just made the film as I had written it. Emilie [Lesclaux], my wife and producer, told me, “This is not a two-hour film. This is going to be longer.” And I said, “Well, let’s try and make it work, whatever length it is.” Of course, I was a little concerned about it being over two hours. “Neighboring Sounds” was two hours and eleven minutes. This is two hours and twenty-five minutes, and I did try bringing it down. For instance, I considered cutting out the sequence with the family looking at pictures. 

SB: Oh really? I never knew that. 

KF: As a writer, the scene felt too self-indulgent. I didn’t want to overstate anything, but at the same time, the scene expands on some of the themes in the film. It also involves Juvenita, the thieving maid, and I liked that character. I liked the connection between Clara and Julia, the girl who comes from Rio, and that would’ve been lost as well. I really liked how there are so many things happening in that sequence. It’s almost like a mosaic of the whole film.

SB: I don’t like the word “organic,” but I cannot find a better word to describe that scene. It belongs to the body of the movie. I think of a movie as a human body. You can feel the pump of the heart and the blood going through the veins when you watch that scene.   

KF: Ultimately, you just have to do what feels right for the film. It really helps when you have great collaborators like my editor, Eduardo Serrano, who kept telling me various scenes should be longer. These 150-minute superhero films that Hollywood is making are so concerned with their length that each scene doesn’t have the time it needs to make sense. Each scene is way too fast. A guy will step out of a car, and you’ll be confused about how he got there, or whether it was even a car. Everything is abbreviated and chopped up in a very ugly manner.

SB: It always surprises me when I see the director’s versions of films released separately, long after the film’s theatrical run. It’s so sad to me because it shows how the filmmaker never got to make the film he had originally envisioned. You watch it and go, “Oh my god, he had to cut that scene! I can’t believe it.”

KF: People have reacted to the length of “Aquarius” in very positive ways. For example, at the beginning, you have people in a car on the beach at night. One character says, “I’m going to play you this great track.” She pushes in a cassette tape, and they listen to about 45 seconds of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” You can actually see the pleasure registering on their faces, but it takes time, and audiences have appreciated that.

It’s also wonderful to see a film anchored by a female protagonist of a certain age who is such a life force.

SB: It’s a great role for any age. Any actress wishes they would find a screenplay that means as much to them as “Aquarius” meant to me, as a person and a citizen. I live in New York, and Clara lives in Recife. The character is Brazilian, and as I read the script, I felt like Kleber had been spying on me in order to create this role. Clara and I have different backgrounds. I come from an intuitive world, and she’s an academic, but when we got together, we really became one. There are many times when I’m watching the film where Clara will say something, and I will find myself agreeing with her. It was the first time that I had this weird sensation that the character I played is so me, but yet it’s so her. 

KF: One year ago today, we were shooting the scene where Clara comes out of the ocean, which has become a signature image of the film.

SB: Everybody else is going to react differently to the film, but what I love about it is that both men and women are going to react to it because they will find themselves represented. When I saw that scene for the first time, it blew me away. It caused me to reflect on my age, my history and all that I’ve been through in Brazil. Having been away from Brazil for so long, while not speaking in my own tongue, when I saw that image, I felt like I was taking my first deep breath after nearly suffocating to death. It was like the plastic had been removed from my head. Even if this breath turned out to be my last, at least I got to have this one moment of release. At least I got this one chance.

KF: The film has been receiving very strong reactions from young women as well as older women. Clara is like a classic movie heroine, which is how I had envisioned her when I was writing the script. I had this ridiculous idea of finding some woman in the supermarket who would be the perfect person to play the lead role. But this woman had already existed in our culture, in my own life, and it was Sônia. 

SB: See? I knew he was spying on me.

KF: The reaction I got from Sônia in less than 48 hours after I sent her the script was so genuine that it left me stunned. Often when you show people scripts, you get polite, absent-minded reactions, as well as exclamations of “What the f—k is this?” When Sônia talked about the script in detail, it was as if she had seen the film last night, even though it hadn’t existed yet. It was a completely bulls—t-less reaction, so I knew it had to be her, and she has been great ever since.

SB: I just realized the other day that Clara and I are now going to be apart year by year. She’s still 65, and I’m 66 now. When you make a movie, it preserves you at a certain age, and it’s so wonderful that Clara has preserved me at 65. People are talking about her age in a way that is positive and respectful, which is so wonderful. I’m not saying that we need more stories about people of a certain age, we just need more great stories about people.

One of the most fascinating themes in “Aquarius” is the role that material items play in our lives and how they become linked with pivotal memories. How does the film reflect your own approach to dealing with the past?

KF: For me, it’s part of being human. I’m 47 now, and I’m at that stage where I’m still young but I’m not young. I’m not old but I’m getting old, and I have stuff at home that reminds me of people and places. I have two kids now and through watching them, I keep having flashbacks to my own childhood. When I talk to them, I remember my father talking to me, so it’s understandable that I would make a film like “Aquarius.” A very good friend of mine saw the film, and she said it was clear that it had been made by someone who had just become a father.

SB: The movie is about love, ultimately, and it was made with love. There were a lot of parents in the crew, and they were the best crew I had ever worked with. Everybody knew the construction of each scene, and were completely invested in every shooting day. The design of Clara’a apartment is so important, such as how her records are placed along the wall. They are the first thing you see when you arrive on that set, along with the piano and the wooden dresser—which is a character in itself, and is connected with Clara’s memories [of lovemaking]. It makes sense that somebody told you that you made the film from your perspective as a father. 

KF: It’s like I’m stuck in a time bubble. Memories keep coming back, and of course, memories are a huge part of literature and cinema, from “Stand by Me” to “Blade Runner.” 

SB: Or “Sunset Blvd.” [laughs] 

KF: I just hope the film doesn’t feel overly nostalgic because too much nostalgia for me leads to depression. I think Clara is very pragmatic.

Unlike Norma Desmond in “Sunset Blvd.”, Clara’s not stuck in the past, she simply wants to preserve it.

SB: I think the relationship with her nephew shows that she’s not nostalgic. She just wants to preserve what is important to her—her records, her books, even some furniture. She doesn’t want to leave that house because it is her home. That is where her kids were born. After moving so much in my life, I was touched by Clara’s need to stay in that apartment. I love her life, and that may be why I connected to her so strongly. We are the most alike when we are fighting for our rights. That apartment belongs to Clara, and no one has the right to take it from her. I keep boxes filled with recuerdos—little memories that are in the form of pictures and events that I’ve written down. It’s funny that I chose to write them in Spanish rather than English or Portuguese.

KF: I think anybody who was ever saddened by a movie theater closing would be able to understand this film. The ruins of classic movie theaters are a personal obsession of mine, and I’ve made a couple of documentaries about it. I think the film comes from that original feeling I had 18 years ago, when I was in a São Paulo supermarket. I was in line to pay for something, and when I looked up, I saw the little windows of a projection booth. That’s when I realized the supermarket used to be a movie theater. They didn’t even bother to change the walls. Years ago, “The Sound of Music” could’ve been playing in that space.

SB: In Brazil, there is a fear and a denial of our past. Downtown Rio used to display the history of colonialism in Brazil. They had beautiful buildings and theaters, and there was a bakery that was threatened to be demolished, but people insisted against it. They laid down in front of it and said, “You’re going to have to go over my body to destroy it.” It frustrates me when I see people on Facebook posing in front of old buildings while on vacation, because they could’ve posed in front of equally beautiful buildings at home in Rio. You see all these old buildings going down or catching fire overnight, and it is so sad. I am very connected with these buildings because they are our history. It is the only one that we have. 

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the former Literary Editor at and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 

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