In The Greater London Pensioner Association newsletter (October 2017) Judith Olley writes about the Representation of Older People on Film. It is refreshing to read about films from an older person’s viewpoint and I picked up two films that I had missed on their release in London: Aquarius and The Midwife.
Aquarius is an exceptional film about a woman aged 65 who resists a company’s pressure to sell her flat so they can develop the site. I will try to disentangle the threads of the intricate mesh that make of this film a unique exploration of the life of an old woman, Clara. I have to ignore the Brazilian political climate of the times . The sound is important to the director as Clara was a music journalist so I regret not being able to comment on the music and songs. I cannot make informed comments on these important aspects of the film. I just would like to show the way the director/writer exposes the important factors in the life of an ageing middle class woman.
A few general notes:
The titles: as other devices in the film the following titles make the viewer think.
Aquarius is the name of the building Clara lives in and fights for. There are many interpretations that can be used to explain the use of this astrological sign as the title of the film. Given the importance of music for the main character I would favour a link to “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from Hair and the spirit of rebellion of the late 60s.
Clara’s Hair: the first 32 mins of the three-part film is itself divided into two parts. In 1980 at her 70th birthday party Aunt Lucia has grey hair and Clara aged 30 has cropped hair due to chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer that she has survived. In 2015 Clara has impressive luxurious very long, very black, hair. On first viewing this image is puzzling but powerful. Puzzling because it is an unusual and striking image to use in connection with a woman aged 65, specially when compared to the 70 years old Aunt Lucia’s white hair. But it becomes clear that her hair in a bun is her public self but the gesture of letting her luxurious hair down signals connection with her inner self.
Clara’s Love: In this longest section it is Clara’s love of her home and the people she knows that prevail.The scenes last from a few seconds 12 mins .
Clara’s Cancer: Clara battles against the developers who have invaded her space like a cancer.
Changes in the physical environment
The narrative is based on Clara’s resistance to the pressure put on of a development company and other interested people to sell her flat, the last inhabited one in the 40s Art Deco building. Through this narrative Filho looks not only at the political, social and personal background of Clara’s story but makes a strong statement about the importance of the preservation of the past. The changes and time passing in this film reside not only in people but are inscribed in buildings, furniture, music, photos, archives, relationships as well as inner personal recollections and memories.
THE BEACH TOWN
Aerial black and white stills show the change of the beach town of Recife from low-rise buildings into rows of high-rise towers in 2015. Clara aged 30 in 1980, recovered from cancer of the breast escapes her crowded flat with her brother and sister-in-law. They go for a fun drive, a smoke and private conversation on the sandy beach. In the dark people are playing on the sand.
In 2015 the road is traffic dense and is used by a drug dealer on a bike. There are people jogging and Clara aged 65 takes part in the ‘Yoga laughing’ session with a crowd of people in close physical contact but anonymous. Clara barefoot walks with her nephew and visiting girlfriend and shows how the sewage pipe that divides the poor part of the town from the trendy beach.
Seen from the beach the building is pink but will change to blue and then Clara get it painted in expensive white. The building itself has a front space with shrubs and flowers and garages with forecourt. In 1980 the garage forecourt is alive with children playing football but in 2015 there are only two stray cats. It becomes the site of confrontation between Clara and the ever smiling young developer who devises ways of intimidating Clara.
Clara brought up her children in this flat. We see the front and back entrances where in 1980 a crowd of people of all ages celebrate a birthday and dance to music played on a vinyl record. People stand and lean around a chest. Fade to 2015 and the flat features a large window with sea view and modern furniture except for the chest of drawers. Clara enters walks and poses facing the window as if on stage. She does her stretching exercises in front of the window and prepares to go out passing the chest and a table with modern style chairs.
We will see all aspects of the flat: front and back doors, the sitting room, the bedroom, the kitchen. We are shown shelves full of books and records, the vinyl record player but also the digital one that the grandchild is taught to use. The hammock where Clara relaxes and the chest.
Aunt Lucia’s 70th birthday is attended by a crowd of extended family and friends of all ages from babies to old people. The speech about her life achievements in Letters Music and Law, her time in prison is read by Clara’s young children. This is followed by Clara’s husband telling of the hard times in the late 70s when he had to look after the children while Clara was being treated for cancer. A profile close up of Clara with cropped black hair and Lucia with white hair shows the closeness of the two women. We have the feeling that Clara is walking in her aunt’s footsteps as a working and politically active woman. In an interview about her new book Clara instructs two young journalists on the importance of the past. She and her collection of Lps are witness to this. The young ones do not look too interested.
She is also comfortable with the new technologies.
In 1980 Clara knows her neighbours. In 2015 she has no neighbours but a jogger she knew as a child accuses her of being selfish. She has for the last 6 years been stopping the old neighbours from finalising the deals with the developers.
Building workers: Clara makes sure that she knows their names and addresses them personally.
Roberval is the lifeguard who looks respectfully after Clara’s safety when she takes her daily swim. She relies on him when she needs support.
Ladjane is the maid who worked for Clara for nineteen years. She knows her employer’s needs and there is a certain closeness between them. Clara acknowledges Ladjane’s birthday and even visits her at her home but when displeased she is short with her. She ignores her in a family recollections session when Ladjane intervenes to show the photo of her son who died in a motorcycle accident.
Female Friends with whom she goes to drink and dance in a nightclub. They are also connected through Ladjane’s sister who works for one of them. Letitia gives her the phone number of a gigolo.
Old time friends
Cleide: Clara’s old times friend a lawyer who helps her to find documents in the town’s archives and defends her against the developers.
Ronaldo: The Editor of a paper that Clara does not read anymore. He explains to Clara the corruption and nepotism that is rife in Brazilian society. He divulges to her that the young interviewer was his niece, that a member of his family is close to the construction company and that even Clara’s younger brother is involved in shady business. He himself is not vulnerable because he knows too much and he tells Clara how to obtain evidence against the company.
Adalberto her husband died 17 years ago. Having written something for him, she visits the cemetery but is unable to read it as she is unsettled by a conversation with Diego.
Antonio her older brother: she asks his advice about her situation. It is with his family that Clara recollects her past with the help of armfuls of photos albums. Loss is hinted at in this scene: loss of memory of the thieving maid’s name but also loss of Ladjane’s son mentioned in other contexts.
Clara has three children. Her relationship with them is exposed in the 12 mins long family meeting sequence.
Martin: is mild and smooths out tensions between mother and daughter. His wife and Clara are friends.
Rodrigo is reserved. He is gay but he has not introduced his lover to the family. Clara demands from him to come more often, not only to communicate by electronic means. She would like to know his boyfriend.
Anna Paula divorced, toddler son. Clara’s relationships with her sons are easy but there is some tension between her and her daughter who still hurts from the neglect she felt when Clara was away for two years. Anna is the one who tries to persuade her mother to sell the flat and expresses worries about her: her comfort and security. Clara is rather harsh with her daughter. Accusations and bad feelings are expressed in two occasions.
Toms and Julia Clara is closest to her nephew. She even expresses maternal feelings towards him. They share the love of music and songs and recommend to each other their favourites. Toms’ new girlfriend has also this interest and it is clear that there is here a rapport between the two generations based on shared interest.
Pedro: Anna’s toddler that Clara is expected to babysit for without warning. He seems more interested in being introduced to the controls of the record player than looking at books.
Sexuality Although explicit sex scenes have reached the porn networks, they are not prurient. There are glimpses of sex on the beach, of an orgy, and conversations on the subject. But sex is important for Lucia and Clara.
Lucia: at 70 and a widow for the last 6 years. During the speech about her achievements she visualizes love-making on the bed and the chest of drawers (focused on in many shots of the flat). You forgot or skipped the sexual revolution she says and describes how she was the lover of a married man for 30 years.
Clara is not defined by her sexuality but it is part of who she is. On an outing to a nightclub the women gossip and speak openly about sex, casual and ‘professional’ and Letitia encourages Clara to use the phone number of an escort. A widower dances with Clara and offers to take her home. After exploratory kissing in the car the man cannot cope with the fact that Clara had a mastectomy. They separate.
A noisy sexual orgy is taking place in the flat above Clara’s. Unable to sleep she climbs up the stairs and peeps in. Explicit views of sexual activities with multiple partners. She comes down and stimulated, unable to sleep she phones the escort. An attentive young man arrives and she is in control of their coupling. In the morning she appears so contented that when she asks the life guard Roberval for the number of somebody to call in an emergency he mistakes the request for a pickup line.
Resistance: Clara’s refusal to give way to the construction company is the subject most commented upon in reviews. It is seen as selfishness by some and heroism by others. In terms of screen time the narrative in this spread very thinly. The resistance is situated in a political social setting and rooted in the life course of a woman aged 65.
Clara’s daughter: in the family meeting she is the one who expresses her worries about the safety and comfort of her mother. She has visited the developers and Clara feels this was a lack of respect. Her outburst is powerful: So when you like it, it’s vintage; when you don’t like it, it’s old. Is that right? You guys don’t know what it’s like to feel crazy without being crazy and that the madness is out there, don’t you? Another thing that’s really crazy around here is that we’re talking about money.
Roberval: makes her aware that the area is dangerous and that she should be afraid.
The old neighbour accuses her of being selfish.
The Developers: The first meeting with the developers closes the first part of the film. Diego his grandfather and another man with a bunch of keys first appear in the front path and Clara half opens the door to them. They converse as if it is the first time they meet and Clara makes it clear that her flat is not for sale. Diego is conciliatory with a smile and insists gently.
The Harassment: A noisy orgy takes place just above Clara’s flat when there are many other flats available. The stairs are soiled with smelly faeces. Eventually cleaned. Diego’s car is parked in front of Clara’s garage. Mattresses are burnt in the front yard. A big religious meeting takes place and Clara with the push chair and the grandson are helped up the crowded stairs. Finally Clara who has decided to get the facade of the building painted white is served with legal papers.
The confrontation : Clara approaches Diego as he arrives in the morning and the dialogue progresses from Clara accusations about the burnt mattresses, the noisy party, the dirty stairs to her loss of temper when Diego mentions her children. He had tried to convince her calmly that her staying in her flat is not viable anymore. But she explodes and insults Diego and accuses him and the so-called elite like him to have no character and that they only value money. It is then that Diego reminds her that she had no manners in not asking her grandfather and him into her flat, that she comes from “darker-skinned family …that had to sweat a lot to get what they got”… implying that this what is needed to succeed. She recoils and leaves. This scene occurs in the last 30 mins of the film when the pace of the narrative accelerate and Clara goes on the war path.
RESISTANCE : Clara contacts her old friend, the newspaper publisher, for advice on how to combat the company and is informed of certain incriminating documents concerned with the developers. But he also tells her that his family is connected to them and that even her brother is involved in shady business.
When she receives legal papers about her painting the building facade she involves her old friend the lawyer to help her .
Cancer of the building and accusation: At this point the film takes a less realistic approach. Two of the building workers disclose that they were employed to deliver something to one of the flats. Roberval, Clara’s brother, her nephew and the lawyer come to the rescue and discover the infestation of termites. The images here are striking and symbolic: networks of marching termites have spread in every room of the flat and they find the primary cancer : the nest.
In the meeting room of the company Clara opens a suitcase and spread the termites all over the meeting table with the words
I survived cancer. More than 30 years ago, you know? And these days, I’ve been thinking about something. I’d rather give you cancer than having it myself.
I tried to isolate the components of the film that show the richness of the factors that makes the life of a 65 years old woman. But I failed as it is impossible in this film to ignore so many other aspects. In particular, Clara’s relationship with her daughter deserves more attention. Clara’s insults when angry. The change of men’s role in Brazilian society: difficulty of divorce for Lucia and home carer for Clara’s husband.
It is impossible to convey how Aquarius reflects the many aspects of ageing without considering it with its music and political significance. The acting, the directing, the cinematography also need exploring.
I feel that it deserves a guide to help appreciate its many aspects.