‘Aquarius’
Director:
Kleber Mendonca Filho
Stars: Sonia Braga, Maeve Jinkings
Rating: NR
4 (out of 5) Globes

It sounds like a rah-rah, you-go-girl rabble-rouser: In “Aquarius,” Sonia Braga plays a 60-something woman fighting off scheming developers who want to turn her longtime apartment building into another skyscraper. Sometimes it is a rabble-rouser. Braga, the fiery sparkplug of “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,” gets to snarl at cold-hearted jerks, shout them down; she scores the best mic drop since last year’s “Phoenix.” The movie, though, is so big, so expansive that it’s more than just that. It is a crowd-pleaser. It’s also a character study always up for a detour, a complex study of urban life, a study of aging, a cosmic mindf—k.

Laid out over three chapters, it has the feel of a sprawling novel without feeling “novelistic.” The opening credits show black-and-white photos of Recife, a large seaside city in Brazil, throughout the last century. Finally it deposits us in 1980, but it’s only a pit-stop. We see Braga’s character, Clara, when she was young (and played by Barbara Colen). She’s in a car full of friends, who park on the beach. She pops in a cassette of Queen’s newly-released “The Game.” The pounding bass riff from “Another One Bites the Dust” throbs through the little car speakers, and it’s like hearing it for the first time, with these specific people, in this specific place. Clara will be late for her aunt’s 70th birthday party, held in her spacious apartment in a building named Aquarius. As someone toasts her with a speech, the camera will zero in on the wrinkly yet still elegant aunt, who sees a drawer in her apartment and instantly flashes to her younger self, naked, getting it on on top of it with an old, bygone lover.

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Time and space are loaded in “Aquarius,” at once right there in the present and back there, throughout the ages. When we suddenly dissolve into the present day Clara’s been in the Aquarius for 35 more years. We learn she became a renowned music critic (the film’s soundtrack, mostly Brazilian, must be Shazam’d), that she had a mastectomy, that she lost her husband 17 years prior. She’s the only resident left in her grungy building; everyone has succumbed to those dastardly developers. But they don’t come off like Snidely Whiplashes. Their young leader (Humberto Carrao) is gentle and polite, quick to defer to Clara every time he begs her to reconsider his offer. Or is his kindness just another tactic?

It takes 140 minutes for “Aquarius” to reach its fiery conclusion. That there’s a fiery conclusion at all should surprise anyone who saw filmmaker Kleber Mendonca Filho’s last film, “Neighboring Sounds,” also about housing situations in Recife, but also a full-on art film without overtures to more conventional audiences. Here, he goes 50-50. Every time your blood gets boiling about Clara’s plight, it lights off on a digression; every time you’re grooving on its aimless study of her life, the drama pops back in. The movie jerks you around, but it’s not annoying; it’s thrilling. It has the power to fulfill its ambitions, and it has the movie star to hold your hand through the muck. Braga has always been a dynamo onscreen; witness Clint Eastwood’s “The Rookie,” which has her run screaming through an airport shooting a machine gun and sensually raping her director as he’s tied to a chair. This is the role towards which her entire career has built, but she doesn’t upstage it. She’s embedded within it, another sign of its excellence.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge