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The Devil is on the Street

Medusa (Anita Rocha da Silveira, 2022, Brazil)

by Rodrigo de Abreu Pinto

          The accumulation of works and awards boasts Anita Rocha da Silveira as an exponent of independent Brazilian cinema that began making films in the past decade. In the most promising cases, these are films and directors that have seduced international audiences through an art that is aesthetically daring and sometimes more, sometimes less, interested in discussing the country's issues. Unlike previous generations, this release from the obligation to represent "Brazil" is experienced as a liberation. Which only makes it even more interesting when someone like Anita proposes to discuss it in its most current form.

          Medusa (2021) is dedicated from beginning to end to the journey of Mariana (Mari Oliveira). The protagonist is one of the members of "Preciosas do Altar", the evangelical choir that sings hymns about morals and good manners during the day, and at night persecutes and beats up sinners who distort the values of the world. The plot is only at first sight so dystopian, since it matches the Brazilian reality in which the neo-Pentecostal imaginary is associated with milicianism, and not less with individual entrepreneurship. Pastor Guilherme (Thiago Fragoso) is a candidate for the Senate, while Mariana's best friend, Michele (Lara Tremoroux), is a blogger who publishes videos for modest, domestic, but vain women. The narrative takes shape as Mariana becomes interested in the story of Melissa (Bruna Linzmeyer), a sinner who disappeared after having her face burned as punishment for her behavior. The discoveries about Melissa's transgressive personality interact with disappointments that Mariana accumulates with the church and the pastor, and thus the protagonist is transformed, gradually, throughout the film.

          Thus, Medusa is a drama about inadequacy and the struggle for self-affirmation. Mariana claims to be possessed by the devil and lives this out between terror and enjoyment. Her narrative arc is both a libel on female liberation and a critique of religious discourse. Going that way, Medusa ties religion to its most inquisitorial emblems - repression, moralism, erasure of self. If "Need of the Altar" threw stones at sinners, religion by the hands of the film becomes Jeni herself.

          In Medusa, it is patent that the only subjective dimension motivating Mariana's revolution is religious hatred, while other issues (such as Mariana's class or racial position) do not achieve enough dramaticity or scene time to be incorporated into lines of strength in the film. Even the impact of the discovery of domestic violence against Michele (after more than half of the film in which the blogger was exhibiting a perfect life above suspicion), is buried by scenes that seek to give credibility to the dramatic arc of the protagonist in struggle against evil. Being that the devil is not only in the character's little world, but also in the street, in the middle of the whirlwind.

          Anita ignores this and reproduces the self-referential imagery of her previous works, although there the result was not so controversial. In her short films, the matter of the world was flattened in its effects, but Cortazar's maxim was valid, for whom "the short story is a fight that is won by knockout, and the novel by points". In Handball (2010), the characters and other forms of the film are infected by an indecipherable energy that progressively subtracts the spectator's safe place (where to look? how to look?); in The Living Dead (2012), there is a circuit of which all events seem to make in a galloping choreography of meetings and mismatches. These are short films that move quickly towards the end of the only world they know - their own - but whose journey is disconcerting. The formal and plastic creativity of the director stands out. With no interest in the meaning of the world, she has produced short films with a strength of punch rare in Brazilian cinema. The dramas of the group of friends in Kill Me Please (2015) do not induce greater social reflections either. But being a film founded on clichés of Hollywood genre cinema and the teenage imaginary of Brazilian television, alienation is a limit, but not a character addiction.

 

          Although Medusa recovers elements present in the previous feature film (such as the fascination with violence and religion), Anita for the first time takes on the challenge of issuing a discourse about the world that necessarily overflows her affective Carioca imaginary. One discovers, thus, that it is one thing to rework elements coming directly from the industrialized and fetishized sectors of society, but another thing to represent the religion of more than 30% of Brazilians, about to become the largest religion in the country, surpassing the Catholic one. Medusa is riskier than Kill Me Please, and here Anita's uncanny ability to imprint the particularity of her gaze in every cut, duration, and variation of viewpoints becomes even more evident. But this plastic mastery is inversely proportional to what the film says about the world, leaving us with the feeling that we are disconcerted by the way it shows, but never by what it shows.

         At one point in Medusa, Michele records a video in which she teaches "how to take a perfect, Christian selfie." The lesson conveyed to followers is that "when it comes to holding the smartphone, it's important that it be in a straight line - because from below is the look of hell, we don't want it; and from above, who are we to imitate the look of the Lord?" Caution of the sort, though of a different order, would also be needed when approaching Pentecostal religion.

          The difference between Medusa and other recent films that have portrayed the religious imaginary, such as Holy Earthquake (2017) and Divine Love (2019), is that those interpreted neo-Pentecostalism as a complex and to some extent inaccessible cultural device. Medusa, by contrast, interprets it in a Manichean way, good as good, and evil as evil. The risk of taking religion for what it is at its worst is to give way to the prejudice of part of the Brazilian cultural elite, especially against evangelicals. It is worth remembering that this same elite found it amusing to see fanatical pastors and ignorant people talking about the devil. Jair Bolsonaro, converted to Neo-Pentecostalism during the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, was not. Since then, the left has re-educated itself and learned about the subject. The notion that religion, material precariousness, and the absence of public policies are all threads of the same yarn has become part of the discourse of academics, journalists, and well-meaning politicians.

         Holy Earthquake takes this care when it rejects mere adherence to a set of external markers that make up an identity (linguistic codes, aesthetic preferences, etc.), and takes distance by treating Pentecostalism as a language in itself. This is how the short film by Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin Burca bridges the epistemological gap and, at the same time, translates this distance into a genuine proposal of approximation.

          Gabriel Mascaro's Divine Love shuffles the signs and short-circuits the representation. Good is good, but it is also evil, and vice versa. Like the practice of sexual exchange between couples that celebrates at the same time Christian elements (sex as a means of reproduction) and worldly elements (the sensuality of the bodies, of the lights, of the ritual), the film works by means of scene games where our impression of which of the two will prevail is continually sabotaged.

 

          In Medusa, the absence of ambiguity is a moral limit and one that affects the effectiveness of the political drama. Since it answers, by itself, all the questions raised, the film ends up allowing people to dodge them. Those who work on the border between big-structured production and authorial genre cinema, like Anita, don't need to (and shouldn't) renounce criticism. All that remains is to make it demanding enough to thus be up to the task of representing the moral and old-world crusade underway in the country.

 

October, 2022

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