Film Review: Brazil’s ‘Medusa’

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Jair Bolsonaro declared war on Brazil’s culture, and especially its film industry, as soon as he was sworn into office in 2018.

He dissolved the Ministry of Culture and moved its secretary to the Ministry of Tourism. He slashed the Agência Nacional do Cinema’s budget by 43 percent—the agency is in charge of providing the initial investment to Brazilian films—and blocked its support of LGBTQ-themed projects.

His administration canceled the government’s contract with the Cinemateca Brasileira, the repository of Brazil’s film history, and then fired its 62 employees. Adding insult to injury, a fire swept through one of the Cinemateca’s warehouses, destroying over 60 years’ worth of undigitized documents and films. 

Down but not out, Brazil’s film community responded in kind, not only mobilizing against Bolsonaro’s anti-culture policies but by making films that questioned and critiqued his administration and the far-right politics that drive it, as well as asking what a post-Bolsonaro Brazil might look like if things go too far. As director Kleber Mendonça Filho told the press after presenting his monumental modern-day Western Bacurau at the Cannes Film Festival three years ago, “Brazil right now does feel like a dystopia in many, many everyday aspects.”

Co-directed with Juliano Dornelles, Bacurau was the first Brazilian dystopian film out of the gate: the story of an Afro-Brazilian community in the country’s northeast that discovers, after burying their matriarch, that they have become a human game reserve for privileged white tourists—only nobody bothered to tell these armed tourists that this town was born as a quilombo, or maroon colony, back in the 17th century, one of many established by runaway slaves, and its residents know how to put a good and bloody fight.

The film’s release was followed by Gustavo Mascaro’s Divine Love (2019), the story of a deeply religious registry office clerk who tries to dissuade couples from divorce and is unable to bear children no matter how many orgies—sanctioned, for procreation purposes, by the country’s theocratic government—she attends.

Lázaro Ramos’ Executive Order (2020) portrays a black community under siege as Brazil’s authoritarian government orders their deportation to Africa.

You can also add this year’s The Pink Cloud, Iuli Gerbase’s portrait of a country besieged by an unknown meteorological phenomenon that forces a nationwide shutdown.

Anita Rocha da Silveira joins the Brazilian dystopian club with her mesmerizing, chilly, and unnerving sophomore feature, Medusa, a provocative mix of genres that keeps you off-balance. In fact, with its tale of a Brazil under theocratic rule and its color scheme full of bright neon-lit purple and pinks and pastel greens, Medusa makes for a fascinating companion piece to Mascaro’s Divine Love.

The film opens with an attack by a group of white-masked, designer-handbag-carrying young women on another young woman who was watching a video of an experimental dance on her smartphone. As they kick and beat her and record the assault, they scream, “Jezebel!” “Slut!” “We’ll nail you to the cross!” They then force their victim to say that she will accept Jesus in her heart. Once uploaded, the video gets over 10,000 likes.

This opening scene, camera tracking back included, and the film’s overall satirical tone owe a huge debt to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, but Rocha de Silveira has much more on her mind than paying tribute to both the Kubrick film and the Anthony Burgess novel. This is, after all, a film about fanaticism, sexual repression, sexual awakening, and how womanhood responds to those forces that not only disregard them and treat them as objects to be controlled, but also see in them the source of all evil—a member of the girl gang even claims that “girls whose names start with the letter M are malicious.” 

By day, this group of seven young women performs as Michele and the Treasures of the Lord, the female choir of Pastor Guilherme’s (Thiago Fragoso) church, himself a man with presidential aspirations. Their repertoire consists of hilariously saccharine—and disturbing—versions of popular songs, including a gratingly funny rewrite of “House of the Rising Sun” as a political jingle. Their male counterparts, the Watchmen of Sion, train in martial arts while proclaiming themselves to be “the guardians of the family, the morale, and the Lord.” They are Guilherme’s Blackshirts. They are also paired with the members of the Treasures of the Lord to, you know, preserve the country’s religious purity. Think of both groups as the unavoidable evolution of your run-of-the-mill fraternity and sorority.

The group may bear Michele’s (Lara Themoroux) name, but Mariana (Mariana Oliveira), her right-hand woman and best friend, is the film’s focus, especially after she is left with an oozing scar on her face after one of her gang’s victims fights back. The scar costs Mariana her job at a plastic surgery clinic. Until recently the only dark-skinned member of the gang—her cousin Clarissa is inducted halfway through the film—Mariana has gone above and beyond the call of duty to fit in, including playing the role of experimental subject in Michele’s viral videos and selfies.

In order to preserve her place in the group’s hierarchy, Mariana takes it upon herself to find the whereabouts of Melissa García, a beautiful and popular actress who was horribly disfigured by a woman wearing a mask, her act an inspiration for these female droogies. Michele orders Mariana to record the disfigured Melissa once she finds her, the video upload seen as the ultimate humiliation for this “fallen one.” 

Believing that Melissa is hospitalized in a clinic for comatose victims, Mariana takes on a job as a nurse there, forcing her to set aside all religiously imposed inhibitions to take care of her patients. With its pastel green walls and uniforms, the clinic is a world of its own, one that seems to stand outside time and fascist strictures; a more empathetic world where hugs are allowed and nurses dance, sometimes even naked. Mariana attracts the attention of male nurse Lucas (Felipe Frazas), and as much as her religious upbringing tells her that sin is lurking around the corner, she will eventually let her hot-combed straight hair down—quite literally in one beautiful shot where Mariana’s curls flow from beneath her like the mythical Medusa as she stares at the camera—and finally listen to her long-denied urges.

How these two worlds collide and how it unchains a unique form of female rage and power is a wonder to behold and one not to be spoiled.

Courtesy of Music Box Films

Like Bacurau, Executive Order, and Divine Love, Rocha de Silveira anchors the film in a tactile, relatable present full of smartphones, news of dry spells and power blackouts, and talk of fake news. The future is here. And those posters of a serpent wrapped around a hand strangling it that we see throughout the film are as Orwellian as can be.

Rocha de Silveira, like her fellow filmmakers, wonders how things can and will get worse if we don’t change the course of history. She may be wearing her cinematic influences on her sleeve—the photography is giallo-esque and the film’s soundtrack evokes John Carpenter’s synth-driven music for his own films and Goblin’s scores for Dario Argento—but she is not interested in traditional scares. The horror lies in what is said and done, in its portrait of a society willingly duped and alienated by demagogues who use religion as a tool to impose their will on others. Laugh as much as you like at some of the film’s outrageous ideological and religious decrees and dialogue, but what these characters say is no different than what you hear on The 700 Club and their ilk.

I mentioned earlier that Medusa would make a great companion piece to Mascaro’s Divine Love. Both feature a female protagonist beholden to their beliefs in a religiously authoritarian country who begin to question those beliefs in different ways. Both films take on the far-right and the evangelicals who put Bolsonaro in power. They take mordant delight in eviscerating their religious pieties and hypocrisy—Divine Love’s entire denouement hinges on one such piety when its protagonist discovers that she is miraculously pregnant.

Both films hold a mirror to Brazil and both order us, particularly in the United States, to pay attention, even if that call to action is coming a bit too little, too late for us.

Medusa opens July 29 at the Angelika in New York City and the Alamo Drafthouse (DTLA) and Laemmle NoHo in Los Angeles, followed by a national rollout. It will open at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago on August 12.

 

Featured image: Screenshot from ‘Medusa,’ directed by Anita Rocha da Silveira (Courtesy of Music Box Films)

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Alejandro has been active in Latino media since 1988 when he and a group of 12 independent producers launched Orgullo Latino, a weekly newsmagazine series in the Chicago Access Network. Alejandro joined ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly, as a freelance reporter in 1993, where he wrote about entertainment and culture with the occasional foray into politics. He was also a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo, Arts & Entertainment and Friday sections. Part of the transition team that replaced ¡Exito! with Hoy, and in 2004 he became Senior Editor for all three editions of Hoy (New York, Chicago and LA). He currently is a freelance writer, editor and media relations specialist in Chicago.

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