By Ian Merkel, PhD Candidate, History and French Studies, New York University
The Brazilian film Aquarius, released internationally last October, has been celebrated by critics worldwide after its standing ovation at Cannes. On the front cover of the September edition of the French magazine Cahiers du Cinema, Aquarius was applauded as “a marvelous and surprising act of portraiture” and considered “triumphant, a one-woman show of strength, sensuality and indomitable staying power”. This very Brazilian film managed to do something that Brazilian film historically has often failed to do: to present stories, characters, scenarios, and aesthetics that a more global audience can identify with. In the United States, Aquarius deserves our special attention after having been deprived, by the Brazilian government, of the possibility of competing for an Oscar. But while almost all critics, Brazilian and international, mention the presence of the protagonist Clara (Sônia Braga)’s maid Ladjane (Zoraide Coleto), few analyze the relationship between them. In this article, we propose to demonstrate the very centrality of this question, as well as a broader critique of upper middle class privilege, within Mendonça Filho’s film.
International critics, to a large extent, have failed to address this question as they did for Mendonça Filho’s previous film, Neighboring Sounds (O Som Ao Redor), where themes of labor relations and the legacy of slavery were much more central. This may be because Brazil’s institution of domestic labor is unfamiliar to them and the film, unlike Domésticas (2001), and the more recent Casa Grande (2014) and Que Horas Ela Volta (2015), does not deal with it directly. For most Brazilians critics, the institution of domestic labor is perhaps so banal, so omnipresent not simply in the film but in their daily lives, that it fails to garner special attention. These critics have reason to focus their energies on the larger politics of the film, particularly in the aftermath of the recent impeachment, considered by many to be a coup d’état. But critics should also remember that Clara, the very protagonist of the film, is not without her own ambiguities. Although she resisted the military dictatorship— and we imagine her to be a music critic and writer critical of inequalities on so many fronts– Clara proves incapable of criticizing the very institution of domestic labor that she depends upon in her daily life.
Identifying Clara as “good” and the real estate speculators as “evil” misses one of the essential takeaways of the film: namely, that all of us, to varying degrees, are caught up in a social and economic system that is exploitative, segregationist, and, although not overtly, racist. This exploitation most often takes place at a distance. We know that the clothes on our backs are made by slave labor in Asia; the cellphones in our hands, with materials mined in precarious conditions in Africa and the Middle East; the produce we consume, cultivated either by poorly paid and mistreated labor, by multinationals that are destroying our planet (Brazil being a poignant example), or by both. We choose, however, not to remember these things—in psychology, to repress them— so that we can live our daily lives.
In the case of the Brazilian upper-middle classes, such daily exploitation is often much more intimate. In Aquarius, without cheap domestic labor, who would wash Clara’s clothes, cook her meals, clean her home, and allow her, as a woman, to have been able to pursue her aspirations as a writer? Clara, by most standards, is not only a good, but an excellent employer. Nonetheless, she is still the beneficiary of extreme inequality that makes it feasible (and in her mind necessary) to have someone working at her personal service, day in and day out.
Clara, like her friends, is conscious of this. Mid-way through the film, in the midst of growing tensions with her landlord, Clara dreams of an employee (a black woman) rummaging through and stealing her jewelry before her own eyes. The real thief throughout the film is the real estate company that owns her building. The company pressures Clara to leave her apartment and, when persuasion fails, make her life there a living hell. But in Clara’s dreams, her feelings of vulnerability are symbolized by a much more petty form of theft by an employee in her own home. Her friend Fátima (Paula de Renor), when looking over a family album of photographs in which she comes across an old employee, says quite nonchalantly, “we exploit them, they sometimes steal from us”. The naturality with which Fátima expresses this fact assumes a series of unspeakable truths: the recognition of employee underpayment, the expectation that employees will periodically steal, and the assumption of a given’s employee’s ability to be replaced when this inevitably happens.
Clara’s confrontation with Diego (Humberto Carrão), the grandson of the real estate mogul who is actively working to disappropriate Clara from her apartment, reveals director Kleber Mendonça’s not-so-stereotypical exploration of the upper-middle class existence of people like Clara. While certain critics regret Kleber Mendonça’s stereotyping of the young Brazilian businessman as a typical coxinha, Diego’s response to Clara’s provocations are indeed quite profound. Clara’s invective against Diego as an inheritor of family fortune, disguised in the language of “business” that his training in the U.S. allows him to use, certainly finds echo among the Brazilian left. But Diego’s bitingly sarcastic response to Clara, “you obviously had it tough,” gesturing toward Clara’s maid Ladjane who accompanied their argument, is equally powerful. Clara’s monopoly on morality against the exploitative capitalist crumbles in the face of her own reality.
After watching Aquarius, we obviously gain sympathy for certain characters and kinds of personalities more than others. Clearly, Mendonça Filho’s film is situated to the left of the political spectrum. But the film’s strength is to nuance our preconceived notions of good and evil. Clara, even as a woman on the left, a cultivated feminist who represents, to a large degree, progressive forces within Brazil, is still dependent on the exploitation of labor. In the United States, we have our own systems of exploitation laborer that that prop up middle class existence. In Brazil, however, such exploitation is often much more intimate, occurring within the confines of ones own home.
In recent years, the Worker’s Party government has brought domestic laborers out of the shadows and officially into the Brazilian workforce. Now, these workers are ensured, at least on paper, basic standards such as paid overtime, vacation, and employer contributions to social security. Many middle class people complain of the rising costs of having full time maids, and it may be the case that the current economic crisis forces even more of them to go from having someone work for them everyday to only once or twice a week. Nonetheless, domestic labor, as so many other employer-employee relationships in condominiums, houses, and businesses, remain the norm in Brazil. It is so utterly banal that even the left-wing critics of Aquarius are blind to it.
Mendonça Filho’s film is incredibly nostalgic for Brazilian cities in the 1980s and 1990s. His memory of a much safer, more humane Recife, less affected by real estate speculation and violence, may be accurate. However, it must not be forgotten that in those years, employees like Ladjane were considered as much appliances as they were as people. This, of course, is inseparable from the long history of slavery. According to architect, Lúcio Costa, “The Brazilian machine of housing, from the time of colony to Empire, depended on this mixture of beast and person that was a slave… he is what made the house function: there was a Negro for everything—from the little Negros always at hand for messages to the Old Negro nanny. The Negro was plumbing; he was running water in the bedroom, warm and cold; he was the light-switch and the doorbell; he sealed leaks and lifted heavy windowpanes; he was the washing machine and fanned better than a fan itself. Even after the abolition of slavery, the bonds of dependence and the comforts of patriarchal life […] persisted. During the first Republican period, the low cost of domestic labor continued to allow the bourgeoisie the maintain, without officially having slaves, the easy life of the previous period.”
Aquarius, surely, may have its plot centered on Clara’s disappropriation. But it is much more than about the plight of the middle classes caused by real estate speculation. It is, in many ways, about the necessarily exploitative lifestyle of the middle classes, and the Brazilian middle classes in particular—even when they think of themselves as leftists. Aquarius will surely go down as a Brazilian and international classic. Aesthetically, its value is already recognized, as are Sônia Braga’s performance and the excellent soundtrack. But if Aquarius is to have a more profound impact politically, critics and viewers alike would do well to consider the exploitative nature not only of the real estate industry, but of people like me, you, and Clara.
 “A máquina brasileira de morar, ao tempo da colônia e do império, dependia dessa mistura de coisas, de bicho e de gente, que era o escravo. Se os casarões remanescentes do tempo antigo parecem inabitáveis devido ao desconforto, é porque o negro está ausente. Era ele que fazia a casa funcionar: havia negro para tudo – desde negrinhos sempre à mão para recados, até negra velha, babá. O negro era esgoto; era água corrente no quarto, quente e fria; era interruptor de luz e botão de campainha; o negro tapava goteira e subia vidraça pesada; era lavador automático, abanava que nem ventilador. Mesmo depois de abolida a escravidão, os vínculos de dependência e os hábitos cômodos da vida patriarcal de tão vil fundamento, perduraram, e, durante a primeira fase republicana, o custo baixo da mão de obra doméstica ainda permitiu à burguesia manter, mesmo sem escravos oficiais, o trem fácil da vida do período anterior.”
COSTA, Lúcio. “Depoimento de um arquiteto carioca”. In: Centro dos Estudantes Universitários de Arquitetura. Lúcio Costa: sobre arquitetura. Porto Alegre: UFRGS, 1962