In the span of just two features (I can’t speak for the shorts) Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho has developed a truly indelible mise-en-scène. Architecture’s contour and form take center stage in front of Filho’s camera, his eye ever attuned to man’s geometric impositions on the world. Cavernous widescreen images locate everything within environmental context; it’s not enough to say that Filho’s characters are defined by the spaces they occupy. The spaces occupy them.
Filho’s dynamics of power concern primarily the dominance of hearth and home. In Neighboring Sounds, one familial clan holds sway over an entire city block, the ill-begotten gain of an unexplained original sin. There the family’s grip on their petty empire comes under attack from within by infiltrators lurking in the compound. Dona Clara, the materfamilias of Aquarius, is under siege from without. Greedy real estate developers have their eye on the eponymous apartment complex where she remains the last holdout. Clara’s life is housed in the walls of the Aquarius and Filho imbues every nook and every piece of furniture—including a particularly memorable dresser—with one woman’s personal history. Clara’s commitment to this place gets sketched out by Filho’s cartographic camera, but equal credit goes to the fire burning in Sonia Braga’s eyes. The legendary Brazilian actress almost seems to fight against Filho’s architectural sensibilities. Her hair alone is capable of commanding the screen, enveloping the widescreen frame in swaths of undulating black. It even demands its own chapter. Braga’s place in the mise-en-scène nurtures a productive friction between actor and director. But Filho occasionally opts for a smoother course elsewhere. To call Aquarius safe seems patently false: it caused some notable controversy in its home country after its premiere, though that’s possibly a result of the cast and crew’s public politics at Cannes more than the overt announcements of the film itself. But Filho doesn’t hide his aims either, and trying to cleave a wedge between the red carpet protest and what’s on screen is a fool’s errand. The struggle to control one old flat speaks volumes for Filho. If anything Aquarius‘s premise plays too neatly as metaphor—less, uh, termite, more white elephant. Not every film needs clandestine subtext, however, and Filho certainly isn’t the first auteur to use his second at-bat as a pretext for stylistic and thematic clarification, though I wonder if expansion rather than distillation might’ve made for a knottier movie. Still, methinks Filho has a masterpiece in him, so, thanks in large part to Braga’s ferocious performance, we’ll just have to settle for Aquarius being merely very good.