Greetings again from the darkness. If you were an avid movie-goer in the 1970’s, you likely fell in love with Sonia Braga while watching Dona and Her Two Husbands (1976) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1978). Those movies catapulted the Brazilian actress to global stardom, and a long career limited only by some regrettable script choices.
Writer/director Kleber Mendonca Filbo wisely casts Ms. Braga in the lead of his latest, and she delivers what may be her best performance ever … and certainly one of the best by any actress this year. Clara is the lone holdout in a beachfront apartment complex against a corporate developer intent on modernizing the old building in order to maximize profits.
The film is divided into three parts: “Clara’s Hair”, “Clara’s Love”, and “Clara’s Cancer”. The initial segment is set in 1980 when Clara is recovering from cancer treatment and is attending the 70th birthday party for her beloved Aunt Lucia (Thaia Perez). Lucia’s flashbacks to her younger days bring a subtle smile to her face, while providing parallels to what we see later with Clara. Some secrets from family are treasured memories, not meant to be shared. As the story moves forward, we grow to admire and respect Clara and join in her defiance of the smirky hotshot developer.
The big company bullying the old lady would be an interesting and predictable story, but here it’s secondary to the story of a strong woman – a woman who overcomes cancer, carries on after the death of her husband, fights to keep her home, and generally lives life on her own terms. She maintains her strength and dignity despite outside influences.
A recurring theme throughout is “old vs. new”. From the first sequence with the “old” Aunt passing the baton to her younger niece, to the old lady battling the young developer in order to prevent the historic building from being turned into a modern co-op, to the contrast of the vinyl records of Clara’s collection to the digital music of the younger generation, to Clara’s preference for actual phone calls to texting. It’s the classic now versus then argument, and it’s summed up by Clara’s line to her kids: “When you like it, it’s vintage. When you don’t, it’s old.”
There are some similarities to Sebastian Lelo’s 2013 film Gloria, which featured an exceptional performance from Paulina Garcia, and this one utilizes some terrific “little” scenes … conversations with family and daily life with her housekeeper – all while staying close to a glass of wine, her favorite music, a cozy hammock, and her Barry Lyndon poster. While the ending is a bit disappointing, and Brazilian politics prevented it from being that country’s Oscar submission, those don’t negatively impact the strength of Sonia Braga’s Oscar worthy performance as we rejoice in the strength of an independent woman.