Legendary Actress Sonia Braga Opens Up About Her Triumphant Return to Brazilian Cinema

'Aquarius' Courtesy of NYFF

Sonia Braga is a legend. The Brazilian actress has starred in Globo telenovelas and in breakout Brazilian flicks. She’s earned Golden Globe nominations for her work in the States and guest-starred on shows like Sex and the City, Alias, and most recently, on Netflix’s Luke Cage. She was the first Brazilian to ever present at the Oscars, translating her impressive body of work into a long lasting career at home and abroad. At 66, she’s showing no signs of slowing down. In her latest movie Aquarius, directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, she’s as good as she’s ever been as an older woman who’s slowly being coerced into selling her apartment in an old-school building in Recife that gives the film its title.

The movie, which premiered at Cannes in the spring, rests squarely on Braga’s shoulders. As Doña Clara, Braga is a retired music critic who refuses to cave to the whims of a young businessman named Daniel who wants to tear her building apart and build one of those modern residential monstrosities that adorn the gentrifying neighborhood where Clara lives. But she sees right through him and while she wines, dines, dances, and swims (she’s as vivacious and vibrant as Braga herself), Daniel begins deploying increasingly terrifying tactics to scare Clara out of her safe haven. It’s no surprise Mendonça Filho refers to the drama as a sort of siege film.

The well-received project, which many had hoped would take Braga and company to the red carpet of the Oscars next year, hit an obstacle following the very public political demonstrations the cast and crew performed while at Cannes. Their vocal outrage at the political situation back in Brazil prompted a swift and punishing blowback from the government which resulted not only in a harsh rating for the movie (the extremely rare 18+ rating) but also a refusal to submit it for consideration by the Oscars for their Best Foreign Language Film category.

When I met with Braga and Mendonça Filho ahead of the movie’s screening at this year’s New York Film Festival, we discussed at length the troubling repercussions of those political spats in the context of championing national cinema. But we also touched on the film’s resonance with audiences across the world, and on Braga’s own youthful energy. Check out our conversation below.

Does this film accurately represent a microcosm, of sorts, of contemporary Brazilian life?

Kleber: I think absolutely yes, because each film if you do your homework well and if you’re accurate and honest not just to the story that you’re telling but to the environment that it’s in the film, the way you shoot people and places, wherever you make a film, it will naturally be a reflection of what it is. But some of the aspects in the film that are too close to current Brazilian political affairs and that I think is a major coincidence. Except that there are no coincidences.

Sonia: I think that’s why you are an artist. Because when a good artist pays attention the environment, to what’s happening and everything as you are, you give people that intuition and say like, ‘This is what I see right now’ and warn us of the future. And when people look at our movie I think what’s happening is — you know Brazil is so divided — and I think now what I’m feeling from many many people, they’re telling that what was black and white, it now looks to me that they’re seeing the colors again.

K: There was a lot of intuition that goes into the process. Technically speaking it would not have been possible to do an exact facsimile of current events even if you just look at the timeframe it takes to make a film. But yes, there are no coincidences.

To speak to that, I also wanted to talk about the decision to center this particular story on a woman. The film would obviously read quite differently if Clara were a man, no?

K: Well, it was never a man. I never pictured the film having a 65-year-old male. I could never really picture that film. The film comes from a combination of different women that I have met in my life: my mother is a huge influence. And myself: I am that woman in a way. And, of course, Sonia comes in and she makes it her own. It’s a crazy mix of different elements that made Clara who she is in the film. And for me it’s always more interesting to have a woman character because generally speaking we live in societies that are chauvinistic and I think women naturally face more obstacles. And Clara was always somebody who would be stronger and she would basically try to defend her own place. That’s what she does her own film. It’s almost like a siege movie.

I was struck my Clara’s physicality in the film. We see her swimming, dancing, and even her hair is almost like another character!

S: Oh I’m sorry, and I have it up today so you can’t see it!

“For me it’s always more interesting to have a woman character because generally speaking we live in societies that are chauvinistic and I think women naturally face more obstacles.”

And I wondered where that came from as you created it.

S: But you know, you see my friends in the movie. They’re all the same. They’re all beautiful women with a lot of life. Probably if you moved the story and take one of them it’d be a little bit different but in terms of the aspect of what you’re saying maybe they would have the same energy. It’s because society as you say, sees people over (for women) forties, like an old person. And time changes and women have changed with being in the spotlight and in different professions in the world, you know? And the only thing that when you were talking that if it were a man, which never was the case for the movie, nobody would ever touch the sexuality that a man was with a twenty year old girl, probably, I think.

K: The other thing is, I’m 47 and when I was a child, I remember thinking people of 50 or 55 and they were old. And now I can see a lot of 65 and 70 year olds and they are young. This is probably the first or second generation of older people who are actually young. They are young in the way they move and they way they talk and the things they like. And, of course, their own past sexual history — the fun they had in the 70s and late 60s, which was a completely different kind of fun.

S: I think my generation is much more open-minded than the one that comes afterwards.

K: And even than some people today!

S: Yes! Because, really, in the 60s, you know I was like a teenager and I grew up in the time of getting the album “Look! The new Beatles album!” All these LPs, and sexuality was really open. I never thought about that before but probably in terms of being open-minded about our bodies we were way ahead than young people today.

K: One of the great reactions we’ve been getting all over but especially in Brazil is that Clara is not this “granny.” She’s a 65-year-old woman who’s actually a grandmother but she’s young.

S: She swims. But I think the people my age today they exercise, they feel better about themselves in the way they dress and everything.

K: And, of course, Sonia is very young.

S: Yes. It’s amazing! I am in the room I’m always the youngest. I talk a lot. I’m like a kid!

One of things that also struck me about Clara is that she brings this dignity to the struggle in the film.

S: I think that when people know their rights; when people know where they are and that what they are fighting for is the right thing to do, they don’t have [reasons] for screaming or being aggressive. They just say so: I have the right and I’m not gonna change my mind because it is my constitutional right,

K: That’s the political aspect of it. But I think also Clara has a lot of life experience. She has met a lot of people and she meets Diego and kind of gets the kind of young man he is. She goes along and she respects him at the beginning and she comes to a certain point when she has to basically tell him to fuck off. And it comes from the experience in her life. That’s where this dignity comes from.

S: And also, it’s so funny, she gets Diego and for him, the more he tries and thinks he gets Clara, the less he does. It’s so strange that way.

K: It’s funny I took that from a lot of my own cinephilia. I remember when I was a young cinephile and I thought that I understood cinema and that I knew where films came from. And I realized that once you grow older, you know so much more because you have had so many life experiences and have seen so many more films. I remember sometimes when I meet young cinephiles and they think they’ve figured everything out: they haven’t. They have so many books to read and so many films to see!

And to close our conversation I wanted to ask for a comment on the controversy surrounding the film back in Brazil following the protests at Cannes and the choice to not pick the film to represent the country at the Oscars.

“We are already representing Brazil. All over the world. Clara is out there. She is speaking.”

K: Well, it’s a strange time in Brazil now. Because we are and we were against the whole political process. And it does seem like methods have been taken to try and muffle the thing in a way. It began with the attacks from Brazil’s right wing. Thankfully it didn’t work. The film is doing really well in cinemas and then with the Oscar thing which is really quite scandalous in terms of what happened: we had this very prestigious film internationally. We’re going to get released in over 60 countries. It’s opening here in the US. It opened in France last week; it’s doing incredibly well. And still they specifically picked a film that no one has seen — I haven’t seen it myself. And it became a huge issue, a huge controversy. But I’m at peace because I’m working so much with the film. We’re traveling so much and, of course, Sonia is so amazing in the film that we’re going to try and see if she can get a nomination.

S: For the nomination I think it’s a longshot. I’m all with what Kleber said. The point is that there are nine people that made the decision that they didn’t want our film Aquarius to represent Brazil but if this gets to them, we have bad news. The first bad news is: we are already representing Brazil. All over the world. Clara is out there. She is speaking. We are representing Brazil and I got some other things that I keep thinking. I haven’t seen this other movie yet that they chose but there’s something else about me: I’ve been representing Brazil heavily for about thirty years—going to the White House, being invited to places, because I’m an actress in the world. So for them to take that step with this movie is like denying some truth about artists that represent Brazil right now. That is very dangerous when a country does that, because it puts people in a situation [that gets them to ask]: “What about the other foreign pictures? How were they picked? Are they representing the best of a country or were they picked by a government because of other reasons? I mean, how many foreign movies are there? How are they picked?” That’s the question I have for you and that I’d love for you to find out.