Termite Art: Kleber Mendonça Filho on Aquarius


By Robert Koehler

The Year of Trump now has its movie. In Kleber Mendonça Filho’s second feature Aquarius, a property developer tries to force the last resident to move out of an old but hardly decrepit apartment building on a prime beachside lot. The tenant is Clara (Sonia Braga), a respected 65-year-old music critic and breast cancer survivor, and though her ’60s roots would seem to make her as dated as her building, she won’t be pushed around by Geraldo the developer (Fernando Teixeira). It’s easy enough to conclude that plenty of developers can be assholes to victimized tenants, but the conflict in Mendonça’s drama is hardly so tidy. All of his narrative films, short or long, entail examinations of life in various urban spaces in his beloved coastal city of Recife, in the northern Brazilian state of Pernambuco. These spaces, sometimes simply street corners, sometimes—as in his extraordinary 2012 feature debut, Neighboring Sounds—city blocks, develop into zones of competing sources of power through the course of patiently crafted narratives. There are, on one hand, the people who live in homes, condos, or apartments, and then there are the owners, who may or may not live anywhere nearby. If they don’t manage to get their way, the owners apply bully tactics—and worse—to impose it.

Brazilian politics, as the current attempts to impeach President Dilma Rousseff are proving, can be a lot like this. In the moments when he wasn’t working on the finishing touches of his film prior to its Cannes premiere, Mendonça was Facebooking up a storm about the blitzkrieg against Rousseff, clearly finding an echo in his own story about how men can use any tactics they deem useful to dictate their will over those (women, in this case) who won’t submit. Aquarius will be seen by many in 2016 as a movie of the moment, capturing in a condensed and metaphorical way the practices of fascism and power in the form of property ownership as a political weapon, a weapon being vividly brandished right now in Brazil, the US, Russia, and other countries where right-wing kleptocracy is on the rise or fully entrenched.

But Mendonça’s cinema extends far beyond the week’s news clippings. Even more than Neighboring Sounds, 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. It begins with a charming montage of vintage black-and-white photos of Recife’s beautiful Boa Viagem beach, a splendid memory of things that once were, when Clara’s building, known as the Aquarius, was the latest thing and bossa nova was truly nova. (The soundtrack is full of specific period references across the decades, from Reginaldo Rodrigues’ “Recife, Minha Cidade” to several pieces by Clara’s favourite composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”) This leads into a prologue to the central story, set in 1980, a year after Clara’s cancer year that she shared with her loyal husband Adaberto, when their extended family is celebrating her Aunt Lucia’s birthday. Through ingenious cutting and time-shifts, Mendonça ties together female sexual liberation in the ’60s with an otherwise unremarkable piece of living-room furniture—a connection he pulls into the present in the same apartment, where Clara has been living alone since Adaberto’s unexplained death 17 years before. Objects—a chest of drawers, vinyl LPs—have their own special power, as Clara explains to an interviewer when she shows her a clipping of a December 1980 Los Angeles Times feature interview with John Lennon just weeks before his assassination. The clipping happened to be tucked inside an LP that she found in a used record store in Porto Alegre. Through objects and music, past and present inescapably reconnect. The dominant visual image on a wall in Clara’s apartment is a three-sheet poster of Barry Lyndon (1975), that masterpiece about the futility of the gaining of money and property for their own sake.

Mendonça thus lays the moral ground for everything that follows. The double meaning of the name of Clara’s building (we can never think of it as “Geraldo’s building”) may seem at first to be too on the nose, especially when she’s seen in the ocean outside her front door, eager to venture far from shore to the vexation of her lifeguard buddy Roberval (Irandhir Santos, so memorable as a thug in Neighboring Sounds). Clara, though, emerges as a living member of the Aquarian Age: not an aging hippie, but a woman who believes in the full potential of personal creativity and art and the balance of mind and body (she keeps strict appointments with herself for exercise, restful daytime naps in her living-room hammock, piano playing, and music listening). She does so without lecturing anyone about it, including her grown children, most of whom come to think she’s crazy for not taking Geraldo’s cash offer and vacating the building.

Harold Pinter, an anti-capitalist artist like Mendonça, would frame such dramas as invasions of personal space; the nemesis in a Pinter play insinuates himself in a domestic situation and eventually takes over by any means necessary. Mendonça ultimately suggests hope in this battle between forces in the ongoing war of capital, although it’s doubly disturbing that her worst opponent isn’t Geraldo but his sneakier and more oily, well-educated grandson Diego (Humberto Carrao). His good looks conceal pure evil, and he facilitates a messy, obnoxious orgy that deliberately happens next door to Clara’s place—a poisonously ironic flipping of Aunt Lucia’s original sexual lib politics that plays out (from Clara’s point of view) like the sleazy porn movie it is. Through Diego, the original Aquarian values of “our bodies, ourselves” has been apparently overthrown in a social-political coup infecting all of Brazilian society. Clara isn’t surprised to learn that Geraldo and Diego are well connected in local politics. “This is so Pernambuco, this is so Brazil,” she says to a former newspaper colleague.

Without giving much away about the film’s satisfying final moments, viewers may never look at termites the same away again. This might be read as a sneaky joke from this film critic-turned-filmmaker on Manny Farber’s notion of termite art vs. white elephant art, particularly since Aquarius is regularly reminding the viewer of Clara’s history and position as a critic. Using the weapons of the powerful against them is something only a thinking person could do. Not only could, Mendonça indicates, but should.

Cinema Scope: Although the film’s title refers to Clara’s apartment building, Aquarius also recalls the ’60s and Clara’s generation, which you show at the beginning. Did you view the film in some ways as an illustration of a loss of values?

Kleber Mendonça Filho: Not really as loss of values as something fundamentally negative, but as a skeptical observation on how things change, which is probably just another way of putting it. “Loss of values” reminds me of an idea of nostalgia sickness, which I do not think is a positive element of trying to live life. I read this book during the writing of the script, The Future of Nostalgia, by Svetlana Boym, which is about an idea of loss through those who left or were left without the Soviet Union, a beautiful essay-like work on values lost through time, politics, and the market, and the power of memory and cultural identity; it seemed to talk to me in a very good way. Things change, time has its effects on people, society and values, yes. It is something I observe through living life, through reading books and, of course, watching films, especially old films. I really did see the opening segment as a brief visit to Clara’s past, and how that past leads us to the past of other people that were part of her life deep in the 20th century, like a timeline extension for a film that takes place in the present (the second decade of the 21st century). Fellipe Barbosa, filmmaker and friend, saw that sequence before watching the whole film and told me it felt like “the last night of Clara’s youth,” something that made complete sense. And even if values change through time, some people remain true to themselves, and that is always a challenge, even more so for a woman.

Scope: It’s tempting to draw a connection between Clara as a music critic and your own life in the past as a film critic. It does seem in some ways like a way of honouring the craft and profession—that Clara has a historical and cultural perspective, precisely lacking in the counterforce of the property developers.

Mendonça: Clara’s music journalist and critic is a thinly disguised version of myself as a former film journalist and critic, yes, I can’t hide that anymore. I tried to, but after Cannes, I realize it was a feeble disguise. But I do not believe that critics have necessarily a better understanding of the world. Well, the truly bad ones do not. It is true that there is something about a character that has worked with the arts all her life that strikes me as political, this being a Brazilian film set in modern-day Brazil. Culture has again become something of a dirty word, and it’s interesting that she might be seen as an extraterrestrial being for the fact that she actually enjoys weird things like books and records. It’s that bad right now. So I’m happy Clara is who she is in the film.

Scope: You’ve said that the origin of the movie was a series of annoying solicitation calls on your home phone, a kind of domestic invasion. Did you conceive of this as an invasion movie?

Mendonça: Neighboring Sounds was an invasion movie from the moment I was actually sitting down writing the script. There are eight or nine invasion sequences in that film, from very subtle to all-out attacks. When I thought about Aquarius, I realized from the get-go that the premise for the film was that of a full-on siege. By that, I mean, one character in her clearly defined environment (her home, in a building), limited by walls, windows, and doors. Both are supposed to be safe, the actual home safer than the actual building, because other people actually have access to the building, so her apartment is supposedly the little nest we all have. But is it safe? And of course, people are trying to get in in different attack formations, though the attacks are rarely (if ever) physical. The interesting thing about “invasion” in cinema is that it really seems to belong to the medium. Just look at An Unseen Enemy (1912) by Griffith, so short a film and so amazing and simple. It is very cinematic, this feeling of “security has been compromised.” But beyond a language of cinema, it is something very much present in society, certainly in Brazilian society. Interior/exterior, “this is my space, stay the fuck out,” “we had visitors last night” (meaning, thieves broke in), and all that of course has some disturbing sexual implications, of course, even if the film were not about a woman. A house being violated is a very disturbing notion.

Scope: Certain filmmakers—Marker, Antonioni, Kieslowski, Tsai—use cities as a character and force, and you clearly embrace that path, which you can see not only in your features but your short films. What’s your relationship with Recife?

Mendonça: I love Recife, that’s where I live: I know the place, its rich history, its strong personality. I even know the way it smells. But sometimes I ask myself if the Recife I love truly exists. Maybe it exists inside a cloud of nostalgia and wishful thinking. Maybe I’m being pessimistic. What I hate about Recife is how it is being defaced, how the dividing urban and social lines are strengthened to suit the demands of the market, of giant shopping malls and empty streets in a lively, tropical city, which it is, or should be. Last year, just to give you a beautiful example, the amazing São Luiz cinema, a 1952 movie palace which survived intact, and which welcomes all local film festivals, including my own, Janela, staged the last screening of Tatuagem (2013), the local film directed by Hilton Lacerda, which ran for a full year at the São Luiz. The closing screening was a full house of 1,000 people, and after the screening, the audience took to the streets for a party. What’s so remarkable about this? The São Luiz is in downtown Recife, an area long ago deemed “unsafe” and “unfashionable,” because multiplexes, the mayor’s office, and the middle class believe the area is outdated and that the restored movie palace is “old.” Such an event is unusual and weird, not only in Recife, but in most big Brazilian cities. What should happen naturally every weekend was seen as a beautiful and rare moment of resistance, of actually enjoying the city for what it is. A city like Recife presents artists (and there are wonderful people making all sorts of things, music, film, etc.) with a rich canvas to work on, because there is so much conflict happening, and much of what is going on is absurd and even surreal. The ideas just keep on coming. Also, when you know a place you show it in detail, like the sewage line on the beach pointed out by Clara in that sequence with her nephew and girlfriend. Ultimately, I truly believe that all cities are alike, Vilnius, Recife, Sacramento, Sydney. What probably sets them apart is their history and their tiny details.

Scope: Unlike the immediate block of residents in Neighboring Sounds, you chose to focus on a single character and her point of view in Aquarius. Was this out of an intent to shift your artistic and storytelling perspective, to keep it fresh?

Mendonça: Aquarius became what it needed to be. I admit that moving on to another project does bring a few thoughts about not only how interesting the new film might be for myself as a challenge, but, yes, also as “How will that compare to the last one?” But it really came about very naturally, and it felt good to write it and make it. Hopefully, they are very different films, but made by the same writer-director and collaborators responsible for the short films and Neighboring Sounds.

Scope: While exteriors dominate our sense of people, spaces, and things in Neighboring Sounds—the crucial relationships and drama derive from people’s relation to the street they live on—Aquarius is more interior cinema, Clara’s protected home space, her zone for family, for rest, for music. This is a critical perspective, but I’m wondering if this is your filmmaker’s perspective as well, or do you view them in some other way?

Mendonça: I actually tried to get out of the apartment as much as I could in Aquarius…I didn’t think claustrophobia would help this character, since she’s actually interested in people and the world outside. Even her windows are normally wide open. Neighboring Sounds was both interior and exterior, that was in fact part of the whole idea, and a sense of still being trapped when people were outside. In Aquarius, because we stick to Clara all the time, it really feels more intimate. Maybe the whole idea for treating space is condensed in the opening segment, a very wide open, as far as the eye can see beach scene and, one minute later, a cramped apartment full of people at a family gathering.

Scope: Do you think that the new film is in some way prophetic of the coup-like atmosphere surrounding the overthrow of the Dilma Roussef administration that you’ve been very vocal about on Facebook?

Mendonça: When you think about whatever it is that you want to do, and you look at how society operates, and if you happen to succeed at your observation, you pick up on things that are going on. And it might just happen that reality comes very close to a film that was written, prepared, shot, and edited over a period of two or three years. And it is a beautiful thing. Lindsay Anderson’s If…. (1968) is one of the most spectacular examples of this, considering what happened in 1968, after the film was ready for release. Glauber Rocha’s Terra em Transe (1967) is another film that comes to mind. At this point, of course, the film has not been released in Brazil, and I’m curious to know how it will be seen and discussed. Early reactions in Cannes, from Brazilian critics and observers, have been very strong in that sense.

Scope: Do you view your cinema as a weapon against neoliberalism, or do you pull away from certain uses of political art? One could see either tendency in your work, depending on the observer’s own politics.

Mendonça: I do not. These are films that tell stories. My main concern is to make them interesting in some way, and there’s no desire to turn them into blunt weapons of any kind. What happens, I think, is that whatever it is that I’m able to bring to these films of mine has to do with observations on how people operate in society—nothing new about that. But when you show secrets and these secrets turn out to be tense and ironic and full of conflicting directions, from a social point of view, the film becomes a framing device and people react, sometimes passionately. These days there’s such a huge divide in a society where television is king and queen, and where narratives are mostly devoid of any reality-based tension, that one possible way of looking at Neighboring Sounds or Aquarius is to call them “communist films,” when in fact I am not and have never been a communist, not even as a teenager! These films are merely observations on life, and the films I have made have all been shot in Recife.

Scope: How was it directing a genuine screen legend? Did Braga as Clara change your conception of her character, or reinforce it?

Mendonça: It was truly great. One thing I experienced (it’s more a feeling than actual knowledge, in fact) from my years as a film critic was meeting in person somebody who’s been part of your life for so long through the wonderful films they have made and that you happen to love. Now as a filmmaker, I felt this once again, but in a much more intense way through working with Sonia. Should I rehearse or interview her? She is part of Brazilian culture through television and film, and she is not only a wonderful artist, but also an amazing person. Her reaction to the script last year was priceless. She talked about it as if she had already seen a finished film. Beyond that, she seemed to agree 100 percent with the point of view shared by the script on society and people, from Clara having a gay son to her ability to make a stand for whatever it was that she felt was relevant. The narrative’s political aspect and her vision of Brazil also matched. And yes, having her on the film also brought us a whole lot of her own personal touches and life experiences, which is one of the most arresting aspects of working with wonderful people on films.

Scope: I’m wondering about your affection for anamorphic CinemaScope (even extending to your company name, which closely matches the name of this magazine) and physical urban space. I can’t think of another director right now—except perhaps Paul Thomas Anderson—who uses the wide frame so generously and intensively, filling information from the far left end to the far right end, and the all-important central space.

Mendonça: I thought for a long time if this one should be shot 1.85, for all the usual reasons (one character, intimate story, etc.). I photographed the locations with my still camera and edited pictures for 1.85 and 2.39:1 for us to see, with my cinematographers Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu. But who was I kidding? I love widescreen. I realized it should be shot like a widescreen film from the ’70s. I love De Palma, Altman, Cimino, Lumet, Siegel, Eastwood, Spielberg, Carpenter, Szigmond, Fraker, Alonzo, Semler—I grew up with their films, these filmmakers are in there somewhere, maybe not visible, but they are there, for myself to see. The other thing about widescreen—and this is something I remember from my teenage years—was the pleasure of realizing the film I was about to watch would have a widescreen presentation, as the curtain kept opening beyond the point they were set for the trailers before the lights went down. It was always a great feeling. I should also point out that the use of widescreen today has been clearly lost on many films, because technology has made it so easy to choose an aspect ratio. I’ve even seen filmmakers deciding, “Let’s have it widescreen!” after they shot the film. You can export video from an iPhone on widescreen and DCP projectors just show a film any way you want. In the old days, shooting widescreen was a very technical and aesthetic decision, involving labs, lights, and lenses. The other bad development is the use of those video screens on multiplexes, where the widescreen image actually looks smaller, with black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. That’s unfortunately how I saw Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015), on DCP. All those things made me wonder if 2.39:1 would be the right choice, but ultimately I decided to concentrate on that as a filmmaking tool and on the pleasure I thought I might have watching Aquarius screened the right way. I have to say, seeing that curtain open slowly at the Palais in Cannes, at its premiere, put a smile on my face, and I looked at Pedro and Fabricio sitting behind me, and they were also grinning like silly children.

rkoehler@cinema-scope.com Koehler Robert