In the opening scene of Medusa—Brazilian writer/director Anita Rocha da Silveira’s sophomore film—a woman writhes passionately during a manic, sensual dance routine. Set to a pulsing synth track and soaked by red and green lighting, the dancer gyrates, tumbles and squirms, only to have the camera pull back to reveal that the performer is confined behind the glass of a smartphone’s screen. The viewer, a young woman, rides on a deserted bus, and the video provides her sole source of illumination. When she disembarks, the empty streets she traverses begin to echo with a menacing hissing sound, a signal that imminent danger surrounds her. She runs, but is successfully chased down by an organized gang donning white plastic masks. They beat her to a pulp and shout accusations concerning her sexual history. As they hurl insults—“Slut!” “Homewrecker!” “Whore!”—their voices reveal a feminine quiver. Their silhouettes and long, perfect hair signal their womanhood, and they’ve clearly come to “cleanse” the city of women who dare defy conservative gender roles. As their victim lies whimpering, one of the assailants whips out her cell phone, begins recording and asks: “Do you promise to accept Jesus into your heart?”
So begins Medusa, a future-set dystopian fantasy that leans into the current tenets of misogyny upheld by the far-right. The film acts as a giallo thriller, a modern update to Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames and the latest entry in Brazil’s anti-Bolsonaro fantasy canon. Yet for all of these fascinating themes and well-executed nods, Medusa still feels narratively slight. The protagonist, Mari (Mari Oliviera, who also starred in da Silveira’s debut Kill Me Please), is part of the girl gang (who perform in an Evangelical musical troupe by day)—that is, until her face is scarred during a “slut” bashing gone wrong. Dismayed by her disfiguration, she becomes obsessed with the local legend of Melissa, whose promiscuity was punished by her face being set on fire. Though Mari tells her vigilante crew that she will hunt down Melissa to post a picture of her burned, aging face for all to ridicule on social media, she actually begins to form a kinship with the pseudo-mythic figure—and finds herself falling for a sinful “worldly” person in the process.
Several recent films from Brazil have also commented on Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency and the country’s descent into far-right extremism. Bacarau, the impressive 2019 feat from co-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, chronicles an entire village being scrubbed from Google Maps for the convenience of human poachers; Iuli Gerbase’s eerily prescient The Pink Cloud works as a pre-COVID pandemic allegory; Sundance’s Marte Um specifically looks at the night of Bolsonaro’s election with a sci-fi slant. Medusa enters an established yet ever-growing Brazilian canon that speculates on the sinister potential of the very near future, particularly as it threatens those marginalized among lines of class, race and gender.
While Medusa contains just as much visual ingenuity and intellectual vigor as the aforementioned films, da Silveira’s thesis lacks the same pointed, political clarity as her predecessors. In many ways, this serves the film’s aesthetic immensely—after all, it is far less taxing to be absorbed by hallucinogenic imagery than lucidly direct calls to action. This is also where it most closely resembles Borden’s Born in Flames, surrealistically meditating on the probability of societal collapse and the messy, multifaceted feminist response to that crisis. Yet Born in Flames presents the necessity for feminist action and vigilantism, while Medusa posits that female Proud Boys would rule the streets as opposed to anti-fascist feminists. It’s an interesting twist, but one which obfuscates the film’s desire for an overwhelmingly feminist message. Particularly when juxtaposed with other recent Brazilian offerings of the same vein, Medusa leans into the worst possible outcome for the future without hypothesizing a meaningful radical response to this dystopia. Born in Flames ends with a defiant explosion, emphasizing the lengths women will go to in order to eschew patriarchal subjugation. In turn, Medusa ends on a supposedly cathartic scream that can’t help but feel futile and agonized in the face of the film’s political landscape—even as it’s actively disintegrating.
Medusa owes a great deal to cinematographer João Atala, who captures bathroom-sink realism while infusing the film with a dream-like aura that miraculously jolts instead of lulls. The images conjured are dynamic, intentional and crafted as boldly as possible, keeping viewers intrigued and on-edge even when overarching narrative elements aren’t quite meshing. Though da Silveira’s script could use a bit more refining, her direction is wholly ambitious and confident—a promising comeback from a filmmaker who possesses an invigorating voice and vision. On a tangential note, watching Medusa also reignited my desire to rewatch da Silveira’s debut Kill Me Please, a thrilling concoction that continues to feel apt amid recent debates concerning the ethics of true crime. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take over half a decade for the filmmaker to bestow her next project upon us.
Director: Anita Rocha da Silveira
Writer: Anita Rocha da Silveira
Stars: Mari Oliveria, Lara Tremouroux, Joana Medeiros, Felipe Frazão, Bruna G, Carol Romano, João Vithor Oliveira, Bruna Linzmeter, Thiago Fragoso
Release Date: July 29, 2022 (Music Box Films)
Natalia Keogan is Filmmaker Magazine’s web editor, and regularly contributes freelance film reviews here at Paste. Her writing has also appeared in Blood Knife Magazine, SlashFilm and Daily Grindhouse, among others. She lives in Queens with her large orange cat. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan