Though it conjures up some compellingly freaky ways to visualise internalised misogyny, there's more to irritate than intrigue
Initially filmed – and premiered at Cannes – during the reign of Jair Bolsonaro, Anita Rocha da Silveira’s surreal anti-establishment protest film Medusa arrives in the UK as an interesting but unwieldy slice of recent Brazilian history. An exploration of neo-fascism and its hardline Christian enablers through a series of elaborate metaphors, both literary and visual, it’s got some undoubtedly sharp and snappy points to make, but it makes them in such a slow and loosely formed manner that it’s hard to maintain your interest.
Here, the face of Bolsonaro’s hard-right authoritarianism and evangelical commitment to heteronormativity is, unusually, a girl gang. Wearing creepy white masks, the group – including our “heroine” Mariana (Mari Oliveira) – spends their nights hunting down women walking alone (a sure sign of sinful sluttiness), before beating them and forcing them to repent their sins on camera. It makes for an effectively nasty introduction to this world when we first see them run down a victim, and it’s in this freaky imagery that Silveira finds herself on the most solid ground.
Unhinged dances, animalistically screaming burn victims, and flickering power outages form just some of the strange and disquieting scenes conjured by Silveira in Medusa’s strongest moments. At its best, it can be a very atmospheric piece – after one of the nightly attacks goes wrong, Mariana gets slashed by a victim who fights back and finds a place for her disfigured new visage by working as a nurse at a creepy coma centre.
Yet, that’s not really enough to sustain it over the course of its 135-minute runtime, partly due to very baggy pacing and partly due to the fact that the cast of characters here are mostly just hateful. Obviously, there is no need for them to be a bunch of charmers in a film that amounts to a scream of rage and anguish at the political system it was made in, but it does mean that the later attempts to humanise some of them and dive deep into their respective long nights of the soul are mostly ineffectual.
From Mariana to the gang’s queen bee Michele (Lara Tremeroux) to the charlatan preacher Guilherme (Thiago Fragoso) and his gang of women-despising young zealots, I eventually reached a point where I’d have rather seen them just killed off than learn what drives them. A couple of magical-realism interludes in which Mariana seems to find some sort of Garden of Eden-esque forest in the middle of the coma centre aside, the back half of Medusa is an exercise in frustration, saving all its catharsis for just one moment, a moment that is too little, too late.
It’s a strongly-felt sequence that does a decent job of visualising internalised misogyny and how it feels to push back, even if it’s just in one’s mind, against years of religious brainwashing, but it’s a mighty long walk to get there. It also leaves a bit of a sour taste that Silveira grants this grand rebellion to her violent and repressive main characters, while all their victims are largely forgotten about by the end. To some extent, this frustrating lack of fulfilment is certainly the point – there’s not much solid hope to be found living under the far-right, just moments of primal release – but without a compelling, or particularly coherent, story to back it up, Medusa eventually just annoys more than it intrigues.
Medusa is released in UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema on 14 July.Where to watch