Kleber Mendonça Filho's Aquarius is among the most remarkable films of the last 12 months. Sônia Braga is mesmerising as Clara, a retired music writer striving to hold onto her beachside property in Recife. The music and cinematography are delicious.
This is worth saying at the top because its initial emergence was overshadowed by political controversy. At the premiere in Cannes, Mendonça and his crew staged a protest against the looming impeachment of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. Signs were held aloft saying “Sauvez la démocratie Brésilienne” (Save Brazilian democracy). There was much applause.
“Well, it was just a quiet protest from Brazilian citizens very concerned about the cynical impeachment process,” Mendonça tells me in beautiful English. “They also slashed the ministry of culture the week we were there. The repercussions were bigger than we expected.”
The repercussions were indeed dramatic. Social media was alive with complaints that the film-makers were shaming the nation. Right-wing papers were angrier still. There were calls for a boycott at home.
“Ha ha! That just made it more successful than ever,” Mendonça laughs.
Turning lemons into profitable lemonade, the promoters printed on their promotional posters the words "it is the duty of people of goodwill to boycott this film", culled from a piece by right-wing columnist Reinaldo Azevedo. But there was one regrettable kickback. Against all reason, the film was not considered as the Brazilian selection for the foreign language feature Oscar. The eventual submission, David Schurmann's Little Secret, vanished without trace.
"It really blew up in their face," he says. "The New York Times reported a committee member saying they did not necessarily choose the best film, but chose the one that would appeal to the old people in the Academy. That was embarrassing. They were clueless."
The controversy accidentally turned an obliquely political film – the bad guys are rapacious developers, after all – into a specific political allegory. As in real life, a cadre of scheming men is trying to oust a powerful, intelligent woman. The week the film opened in Brazil, Ms Rousseff was ejected from her home.
“When you sit down to write something you maybe pick up on things that are around you,” Mendonça says. “I could never have expected that when writing it. But these things happen in literature or film. You somehow catch the zeitgeist.”
A graduate in journalism, he spent much of his early life as an influential film critic. In the 1990s, he began experimenting with short film before delivering the singular, ecstatically praised feature Neighbouring Sounds in 2013. Both that and Aquarius have much to do with the way the people of Recife cope with their neighbours.
“It happens to so many film-makers from so many different cultures,” he says. “If a film-maker lives in Cork he makes films in Cork. Then that city gets exposure if the film is seen. I learned about Biloxi from Neil Simon. I learnt about Manhattan from Woody Allen.”
The character of Clara says something about Kleber. She shares his interest in popular culture. Like him, she made a living writing about it.
“Maybe, it’s lazy, but I don’t stray too much from my life when writing fiction,” he says. “I could have just written Clara as a space engineer or a botanist, but I know little about these professions. Because I have a background in cultural criticism I thought I would disguise her as a music critic.”
He pauses for a wry laugh.
“Also, when you are a journalist sometimes you are seen as a threat – just because your job is exercising a point of view. That’s what I found in Brazil. I wanted her to be seen as a threat.”
Aquarius is a long film, but it is more accessible than his first feature. In his home country, helped along by the controversy, it has become something of a sensation. The apartment building in which Clara lives has already become a tourist attraction. Though the situation is exotic, the film tells a universal story. Almost everybody knows somebody this determined.
“Sonia has said it felt like the script was written for her,” he says. “It wasn’t. I originally had the idea that a non-professional would play the role. But she eased herself into the role. She is a fascinating human being with a lot of experience in life. I am happy to say that we ended up as friends.”
Now, he moves on to an ambitious western set in the Brazilian interior. Aquarius has won many friends, but the early controversy kicked up a few enemies. Does he regret that protest?
“Oh, if I could go back to May 17th, I would do it all again. I would do it all again.”
Aquarius is out now