There are a number of scenes in “Aquarius” where the star, Sonia Braga, simply unpins her hair and lets it tumble down, and they just might be the best movie sex you’ll have all year. The Brazilian-born Braga is 66; back in the 1970s and 1980s, she was the hot-cha star of several South American art-house hits: “Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands” (1976), “I Love You” (1981), “Gabriela” (1983), and a rare Hollywood foray with “The Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1985).
Braga has hardly stopped working since, on either continent, but “Aquarius” is a comeback, a homecoming, and a character film in which both the heroine and the actress playing her are characters of the first order.
It’s the second feature from the prodigiously talented (if decidedly eccentric) filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho, who comes from the beachfront neighborhood in Recife, Brazil, where the movie takes place and whose first film, “Neighboring Sounds” (2012), was a similar spooky/surreal tale of gentrification, resistance, and barely suppressed violence.
But Filho goes deeper in this one, focusing on the singular person of Clara (Braga), a proud member of the city’s artistic-intellectual elite who’s also a general pain in the ass. All around her, the tatty yet appealing art-deco apartment buildings are being torn down for sleek, inhuman high rises. Legal and illegal profits are everywhere for the taking and the builders are coming for Clara’s apartment complex next.
Her neighbors have all been bought out and she alone remains, with her faithful housekeeper (Zoralde Coleto) and shelves and shelves of vinyl records. Clara is a retired music critic — that’s one way to get reviewers to like your movie — and the soundtrack of “Aquarius” is filled to overflowing with great American and Brazilian pop. (Clara has a particular crush on mid-period Queen.)
The film’s title comes from the mega-complex planned to replace Clara’s apartment house; in a chilling early scene, the slick young hustler named Diego (Humberto Corrão) who’s trying to sell Clara on the project refers to where she lives as “the building that used to be here.” That’s how certain the construction interests are and how doomed Clara is.
Except that no one dooms this woman. “Aquarius” contrasts the sterility of the new Recife with the funky, familial squabble of its heroine’s past and present. Her grown children urge Clara to move out and get on with life, especially after Diego and his friends move into the apartment upstairs and embark on a mission to drive her out. But we also know from the movie’s opening act, set in 1980, that the place once belonged to Clara’s Aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez), a hedonistic force of nature like Clara herself, and that to abandon the apartment would be negating her heritage.
Filho is a born filmmaker whose storytelling rarely follows expected narrative pathways, and “Aquarius” takes its sweet time, focusing on what appear to be inconsequential details and gradually building force by accretion. He has a playfulness worthy of Bunuel: In that opening scene, as the assembled guests sing a birthday song to Aunt Lucia, the old woman glances at a bureau in the corner and, in her mind, flashes back to the wild sex she had atop it in her youth.
That bureau remains in the modern apartment, a totem of carnal pleasures then and now. Clara, we learn, has been through a lot in life and her body has born the brunt; in one sadly comic scene she picks up an old rascal at a bar only for him to back down when his fantasies collide with reality. On the other hand, a scene with a strapping young gigolo recommended by Clara’s lawyer (Carla Ribas) manages to be both tender and raunchy.
When time lies idle on her hands, she goes out to the ocean and swims among the sharks. And when the opportunity arises for Clara to turn the tables on her persecutors, her fury is nearly biblical. This is not a woman, or a star, to be taken lightly. With fire and vigor, “Aquarius” rages against the dying of the lease.
Written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho. Starring Sonia Braga. At Kendall Square, Coolidge Corner. 142 minutes. Unrated (as R: nudity, sexuality, gigolos and other pleasures). In Portuguese, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.