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For Braga, it’s the age of ‘Aquarius’

Sonia BragaAndre Arruda

TORONTO — It’s tempting to call “Aquarius” Sonia Braga’s comeback. But the Brazil-born actress who became an international star with “Kiss of the Spider Woman” in 1985 has never stopped working. Still, “Aquarius,” which opens Friday, is one of those perfect career-twilight roles that looks backward and ahead, allowing audiences the pleasures of memory while also seeing Braga anew.

One of the film’s central threads is the value of the past and the often-mercenary present that disregards it. Braga plays Clara, a 65-year-old former music critic and the last holdout in an Art Deco beachfront building called Aquarius, her home for all her adult life and where she raised her children with her late husband. Clara is a modern woman, with respect for the past — books and record albums line her walls; she cherishes a dresser that belonged to her aunt. She’s also a cancer survivor, feisty and defiantly sexy. She’s not about to be pushed around, not by her children and not by the real estate developers eager for Clara to vacate so they can demolish the Aquarius.


“The character is close to me in so many ways,” said Braga in an interview at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. “Being away from Brazil for 10 years and not working in my mother tongue, when I read these words [in the script] I recognized all the facets of this woman. Clara is basically fighting for her rights. It caught me at a time in my life [when] I so needed that. I had not given up, but I was on a bridge to [becoming] another person. I bought a camera — I love walking, that makes me happy — and I was going away, almost like hiking in the mountains, when the helicopter with Kleber came to make the rescue.”

Kleber is Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho. He shot “Aquarius” on the same beach, Boa Viagem, in his hometown, Recife, where he set his 2012 debut, “Neighboring Sounds.” Both films depict the anxieties of modern life in Brazil, where private space can be both cell and sanctuary. Filho originally wanted an unknown to play Clara but said he soon realized the role was too demanding.


“He came to New York for two days and we went so deep,” Braga recalled of their first meeting. “It was like he knew me since I was born, and I knew Clara forever.

“Kleber said, ‘You need to know that I love working with non-actors,’ and I said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s perfect. I am a non-actor, too,’ ” said Braga, whose down-to-earth manner contrasts with her exotic screen image.

“In life, I wear cargoes; that bag that everybody hates [fanny pack]; I am dressed to walk. . . . I always had a dream to work on a set where there was no hierarchy [but] more of a collaboration among artists,” she said.

Braga understood Clara’s refusal to disappear or be dismissed. A working actress since 14, she was keenly aware that, at 66, roles like Clara are few. “If an actor isn’t onscreen, they do not exist, no matter what else they do. It’s a complicated industry. It’s very difficult already for women in their 30s, but not men in their 70s,” she said.

Filho and Braga stirred controversy at this year’s Cannes Film Festival when they held signs protesting Brazil’s political crisis and the impeachment of that country’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff was convicted by the Brazilian Senate in August.


“Millions thought we were destroying the image of Brazil,” said Filho. “Brazil was on the international stage because of the Olympics and because we had a Brazilian film at Cannes after eight years. . . . In Brazil there’s a very well-drawn line of what being right wing and left wing means, which today has reached a dizzying level of black and white.”

For all its subtle political commentary, “Aquarius” is first a movie about three generations of women: Lucia and young Clara, in a prologue set in 1980; then Clara in the present day. “It just felt natural and familiar to write the characters. There is a lot of my own mother, a lot of myself, and women I know. It seems to have struck a nerve with a lot of people,” Filho said. “Clara is living in the present — she has an iPhone — but she respects the past.”

“Aquarius” is a rediscovery of Braga. There’s a moment in the film when Clara casually pulls back her long black hair and piles it on top of her head, a gesture that’s signature Braga, revealing her mature, un-Botoxed face.

“Lucky me, because that’s Sonia,” said Filho. “Imagine if I was working with some woman obsessed with looking 45, and she’s 65.”

Sonia Braga will appear at post-screening Q&As at the Kendall Square Cinema, on Oct. 22, at 7 p.m., and at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, Oct. 23, at 2 p.m.


Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.