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Discussing "Aquarius" with Kleber Mendonça Filho

The Brazilian critic-turned-director talks about the trouble in Brazil, 1970s New Hollywood, shooting on location, and more.
The Brazilian critic-turned-filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho has followed up his prize-winning debut Neighboring Sounds with the tremendous melodrama Aquarius, which premiered this year in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Told with the director's beautifully formed storytelling, Aquarius follows the saga of a famous music critic (a remarkable performance by Sonia Braga) who is the remaining holdout in the once-luxurious apartment complex Aquarius, fighting a new wave of development in the city of Recife. 

NOTEBOOK: In the news right now there are a lot of stories about corruption in Brazil and your film seems to touch upon that: themes of nepotism and family. I wonder how much of the contemporary situation you wanted to channel through this story of the apartment.
KLEBER MENDONÇA FILHO: It’s a little hard to answer the question the way you put it because, not the current political situation, because it was impossible to predict even a year ago. If somebody told me that what’s going on now in Brazil would happen, I would say "no, democracy is better than that." We’ve reached new lows in terms of politics. And I understand politics are not exactly clean in other countries, including the U.S., but what’s going on now in Brazil is unbelievable. Just to give you an idea, I’m here in Cannes with a lot of friends who made the film with me, we’ve been having a great time, but the film has hit very strong, well, in the international press, of course, but particularly in the Brazilian press. And, right now, as from last night and until this moment, there’s a trending topic in Brazil which is [that] the right wing people are organizing themselves to boycott Aquarius, which is absolutely insane. I mean, i take it only shows how far away from democracy they are. The idea that the film...I mean, I don’t think that the film is particularly about what’s going on now—but if the shoe fits. They seemed to have understood some kind of artistic portrait of what’s going on there. There’s a huge backlash for a film that none have [yet] seen. And I don’t think that these people would even watch the film in the first place. It seems to have touched their nerve, politically, although it’s almost too early to tell, but, at the same time, bizarrely, it’s been two days and all of that is going on, so, it’s crazy.
NOTEBOOK: Why did you decide to start the film specifically with a prologue set in the 80s?
MENDONÇA FILHO: I think it’s a mixture of the desire to play with cinema twice and have the pleasure of re-enacting a moment from my childhood, because I was 11 at that time, so I remember those family celebrations, down to t-shirts and beer cans. That’s one thing, and the other thing is I think it’s a little bit evidenced that I make, in a certain way, very old fashioned narratives. One thing is: introduce a character and she’s 65, and you look at her and you say, she looks about 60 - 65; the other thing is, show a segment from her past. If that works out well, it’s funny and emotional and it has truth, and if it works, it’s going to have an impact on the rest of the film. So, after so many interviews, now I can tell you that those two elements are…because when somebody asked me that two days ago, I wasn’t really sure why I had done the segment. But I think the pleasure of playing with film toys, you know, all those old cars, costumes, anamorphic lenses, and mixing, you know, the segment in stereo and not 5.1, just keeping it on the screen, and of course handling the narrative with a very kind of emotional moment. I mean, nothing really spectacular happened that evening, in the film, nobody caught fire, nobody was killed—but something emotional happened that she still remembers. I think that’s why.
NOTEBOOK: For me too, also. Once you learn what follows, it keeps the film open, in a way. The movie is predominantly set in an apartment and can feel hermetic, and so, that scene, coupled with the way you lay a flashback here and a flashback there, keeps the film porous, in a way.
MENDONÇA FILHO: Yes, it’s like anything can happen. Not anything, but things can happen that you’re not really expecting, like flashbacks, and the flash forward to the present, also. And the introduction of the wooden chest, which is my own private monolith from 2001.
NOTEBOOK: I’m glad you bring up this topic of cinematic toys, because in Neighboring Sounds one of the reasons why it’s so striking is because of your play with image-form, decoupage and sound, and, I think, superficially, laying aside these flashbacks and flash forwards, this film seems more conventional, or, at least, very character driven, single character, almost a melodrama. Except that you’re shooting it in scope, and you’re cutting the space quite radically, and so on. So, I’m wondering how you approach this meeting point between rigorous form and character-driven drama?
MENDONÇA FILHO: That’s an interesting question because one thing I can’t stand, as a cinephile, as an observer of films and watching, you know, as someone who watches films: let’s say you have a film that’s about social realism, and then you have a kitchen and dirty dishes in the sink, and then you have this woman or man without any makeup, and then the camera is hand-held and it’s like up the guy’s nose, and his ear is out of focus, and the nose is in focus, and I don’t think it’s interesting. The interesting thing is social realism that’s shot like De Palma and Vilmos Zsigmond, you know, because then you have a balance, it’s almost like having Sonia in this film. Because in Neighboring Sounds everybody was kind of unknown, and it works. But in this one, you have Sonia Braga who has a very strong screen persona, and then you have a film that’s very mundane; it’s very kind of realistic in a way. And then, in order to make the link between both, the treatment is a little movie, a movie-movie, you know, it’s like the kind of film that you see in the cinema, or maybe that I used to see when I was a very young cinephile. I grew up watching the wonderful American films from the seventies, you know, Cimino and Spielberg, Sidney Lumet, you know, all those films from the past, that were commercial films back then and they had a certain style which was connected to technique, and camera and lenses, and film stocks. But not only that, but they had ethics, the ethics of those films were very good. You know, women had sex lives, the film seemed to be keyed for adults, and not for 13 year-olds; all that stuff, you know, I love all that stuff, and I think a lot about that when I make a film. So, yes, it’s a modern film, Aquarius, but I wanted to do it like it’s a film with the ethics and the language of maybe 45 years ago, or 40 years ago. Even split dioptics and things like that, which for some reason are not really used any more—or very, very limited use.
NOTEBOOK: Or ever, unless it is De Palma.
MENDONÇA FILHO: Tarantino has used them.
NOTEBOOK: Tarantino, true. I’ve never seen a diagonal split, though. That was amazing. That was very cool.
MENDONÇA FILHO: Yes, that’s true.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about how you approached filming this apartment building, because I feel it must have been a great pleasure to figure out where to put the camera, where to arrange the space on this square box.
MENDONÇA FILHO: A great pleasure and a great pain, because it’s not a studio. It’s a real location, and there’s a boulevard, a busy street—you could see it, it’s about 15 meters from the window. So, it was very noisy and, of course, the walls don’t move, and we had all kinds of practicals outside the building and inside the building. We had a crane in the living room, which stuck its arm outside the window and then came back. It was fun, but it was a lot of work, a lot of cables, and lights. Because it’s not a studio and it poses a lot of logistical problems. On top of that, it’s a living building. There are people living there. People were very nice and very patient, except for one tenant, and you have to deal with all those things, but I love...my main idea was to shoot the apartment in such a way that you yourself could be able to describe it to a friend. “You go in and there’s the living room, and then on the side there is a piano and then a room…” Because sometimes I see films which take place in houses, in apartments, and I can’t, I wouldn’t be able to sketch out… Show me, show me the place, because it’s usually kind of, like here [frames his face with his hands].
NOTEBOOK: I just saw a movie in competition that had that exact problem.
MENDONÇA FILHO: Oh, really.
NOTEBOOK: That is one of the reasons I love your film. I could walk into that apartment in my head.
MENDONÇA FILHO: Yes, that was… I told my friends, photographers, we should be able to shoot this and people would find themselves. If they came at night to visit the set. Yeah. I’m happy with the reception. It’s been pretty strong, and very emotional. It’s a crazy moment in Brazil right now.
***
This interview was filmed by Kurt Walker at the Cannes Film Festival. Watch it here.
Just caught this film last week - it was fantastic! Very different than NS, and in a good way. Visually lush, yet appropriately lived-in spaces. Surprising how conventional it was, I loved that aspect of it. It gave me tons of new insight into him as a filmmaker and his influences. I'm really glad happened after NS, which was a film I also loved but for far different reasons.

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