In the 1976 romantic fantasy “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,” Sonia Braga cemented her international stardom, embodying the sort of sexy screen immortality a lesser actress would have trouble either living up to, or living down, as her career continued through the decades. Too often, in both Portuguese- and English-language pictures, Braga has done the best she could with inferior material in various genres. So it’s a considerable pleasure to see Braga, now 66, go to town on a role worth the wait.
As Clara, a retired music critic trying to hang on to her oceanside apartment in Recife, Pernambuco, in northeast Brazil, Braga isn’t quite the whole show in “Aquarius,” but she’s certainly a lot of it.
This is writer-director Kleber Mendonca Filho’s second feature, after the ensemble sprawl of “Neighboring Sounds.” It begins not with Clara, but with a 1980-set prologue depicting the 70th birthday of Clara’s aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez, a wonderful riddle in close-up, full of secrets).
As various relatives, including young wife and mother Clara, wish Lucia well, they touch on her stormy, adventurous life and times. Lucia gazes at a wooden chest of drawers, a relic predating her college years. The piece of furniture triggers a series of sensual memories from her youth. She snaps back to the present, and soon the film itself shifts its focus to the present day, where we meet Braga as Clara.
She lives in the old family apartment by the ocean. And Clara’s the last resident of the virtually empty building. A powerful real-estate firm wants Clara to sell, or to die, so that plans for the “New Aquarius” condo complex can proceed. Surrounded by her vinyl LPs, her movie posters (“Barry Lyndon” among them) and her memories, Clara’s just fine where she is, though her grown children aren’t sure how much longer she should stay where she’s clearly not wanted.
The best parts of “Aquarius” have little or nothing to do with the plot complications, and the film’s convenient and hasty resolution. It’s more than enough to spend time with Clara, the breast cancer survivor, the mother, the grandmother, the widow, the deeply sexual personality (one male supporting character after another talks about her allure). And it’s more than enough to hang out with Braga for a couple of hours.
In the prologue, a nephew at aunt Lucia’s birthday gathering talks about how her life could “fill a book, a film and a song.” That line is there because Clara’s magnetism and experiences could fill the same. This is an easygoing, plaintively observant picture, one that putters here and there. But Braga is working on another level, and we’re happy to be reminded of what she can do, as an actress and a screen star (two different things), when the material is spacious enough.
Cast: Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings, Irandhir Santos, Humberto Carrão.
Writer-director: Kleber Mendonca Filho.
A Vitagraph Films release. Running time: 142 minutes. Sexual situations, nudity, adult themes. In Portuguese with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema, Tower, O Cinema Miami Beach. Sonia Braga will attend the 5:45 and 9 p.m. Friday shows at Tower and the 6 and 9 p.m. Saturday shows at Gables.