An (almost) Politically Correct “Aquarius”

By Yusimi Rodriguez

Sonia Braga in Aquarius.
Sonia Braga in Aquarius.

HAVANA TIMES — One of the award-winning movies during the recently concluded Havana Film Festival, was the Brazilian “Aquarius”, directed by Kleber Mendoca. The movie received the Best Actress Award (Sonia Braga, remembered in Cuba for her role in “Dona Flor and her two husbands).

Although viewers’ opinions were split: some considered it to be a very good film; others (myself included) thought that it was too, unnecessarily long, with an inconsistent script which was full of scenes that didn’t really add to the plot. However, nearly all of us agreed on something: Braga’s performance was excellent and perhaps the best reason to see the movie.

However, “Aquarius” has already made news headlines for other reasons outside of the film world. In the edition published on Monday September 19th, Granma published an article called “Brazil freezes its future,” by Laura Becquer Paseiro. The subject is the controversial measure pushed by Michel Temer, the Brazilian President, thanks to the impeachment of the President-elect Dilma Rousseff, of limiting the public budget for the next twenty years.

The author claims that Clara (Sonia Braga) from “Aquarius” represents resistance in the face of imposition, the unfavorable and unjust landscape and also claims that even though the film isn’t an explicit complaint about the country’s political situation, the character portrays the reality of a Brazil that is reaching rock bottom and can’t find a way out of the crisis it is experiencing. If the director hadn’t made any complaints clear on screen, the cast made it very clear at the Cannes Film Festival as they protested the coup made against Brazilian democracy in front of rolling TV cameras.

Marilyn Garbey questions this in her article “Sonia Braga lives in Aquarius,” published in the Festival’s Newspaper. The author also tells us that Michel Temer’s government’s punishment came swiftly: they denied the movie the opportunity to compete for an Oscar.

That said, Kleber Mendoca, seems to be what is called a “committed director” and he is, no doubt about it. Nonetheless, he doesn’t escape the racist vision that seems to permeate all of Brazil’s film production. It isn’t very surprising for those of us who watch Brazilian soap operas. In spite of the high percentage of Afrodescendants that live in Brazil, it is not only hard to find them in a lead role, but they are also given less important roles in movie plots, almost always in a form of slavery, even in the 21st century.

This happens in “Don’t call me your son”, an excellent movie which also took part in the Havana Film Festival, although it wasn’t very well-received. The only Afrodescendant character is a maid.

In “Aquarius”, it is even worse. Not only is the only black character a maid, who is shown in a photo and then appears in one of the scenes that doesn’t really contribute towards the story, she is also a thief. There is another maid in the movie, who the protagonist treats like a friend rather than like a maid. This maid has very fair skin. That is to say, the maid who loses a son to street violence and is the main character’s friend, has very clear skin. The stealing maid is very black.

In this extremely long movie (2:25), I can’t seem to get my head around what the purpose of the reference to a (black) maid who cooked very well, but ended up stealing the family’s jewels was.
Of course, except for this small detail, which I don’t believe a lot of people would have picked up on, “Aquarius” is a film about resistance, with an inspiring lead character, the niece of a courageous woman who broke conventions of the time and faced the dictatorship (all of this first long scene with the aunt’s birthday, aims to show us where the protagonist got her strength from, according to Marilyn Garbey’s article). You can’t really ask the director to present a dignified portrayal of black people as well.

Last but not least, Michel Temer’s government’s attitude, by denying the film of a chance to take part in the Oscars for Brasil, reveals that freedom is only allowed when it doesn’t damage the interests of those in power in both “right-wing” as well as “left-wing” governments. Marilyn Garbey is very well-informed about what has happened with “Aquarius”. However, she seems to ignore the fact that the Cuban movie “Santa y Andres”, by Carlos Lechuga, was censored and unable to take part in the Havana Film Festival. It should be noted that I don’t blame her; the vast majority of Cubans ignored the censorship that this movie was subject to.