By Rafa Sales Ross
When Anita Rocha da Silveira’s piercing suspense Medusa began its festival run at the prestigious Director’s Fortnight sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival in July of 2021, Jair Messias Bolsonaro was the President of Brazil. The country still found itself in deep mourning for the thousands who lost their lives to COVID-19, with many citizens blaming the haunting number of victims (which currently sits at a staggering 700 thousand) on Bolsonaro’s loose grip on the public policies around isolation and vaccination.
Things have changed drastically in the two years between that Cannes premiere and the film’s UK release. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva became president in October of 2022, returning to the chair he occupied between 2002 and 2010 less than a year after being released from an unlawful imprisonment that lasted 580 days. As I write this, it’s been mere hours since Bolsonaro became barred from running for office again until 2030, the byproduct of an investigation that concluded the politician abused his power and cast unfounded doubts on the country’s electronic system.
This brief foray into politics is vital to understanding the key themes in Silveira’s sophomore feature, which follows a group of highly-religious young women who spend their days preaching female prudishness at a neon-lit church and their nights as masked vigilantes ready to hunt and hurt sinful dissidents. The two heads of the group are the conservative dream of Brazilian perfection Michelle (Lara Tremouroux), pale-faced, blonde and homemaking, and her best friend, Mari (Mari Oliveira), framed as the meek sidekick whose existence revolves around her more popular counterpart.
The eerie yet well-established rhythms of the community are stirred when one of the vigilantes’ outings goes awry, leaving Mari both physically and emotionally scarred. With a throbbing gash on her once pristinely smooth face, the woman tastes both the freedom and the isolation that comes with imperfection. Kicked out of the plastic surgeon’s office where she worked as a nurse, Mari takes a new job at a rehabilitation clinic for comatose patients, finding in the company of the unconscious the catalyst for a much-needed awakening.
Medusa is one of the latest additions to contemporary Brazilian films to employ genre tropes to build a layered critique of Bolsonarism, joining the likes of Iuli Gerbase’s hauntingly prescient The Pink Cloud (2021) and Renata Pinheiro’s foray into animism King Car (2021). It is, however, in Gabriel Mascaro’s 2019 Divine Love that Medusa finds its perfect companion, both films tapping into the dangers of the ultra-conservative values of religion seeping into politics through nuanced character explorations taking place within a church drenched in neon lights.
While Divine Love focuses on the religious value of marriage and coupledom, Medusa investigates the harmful ripples of extremism through issues directly tied to womanhood. Here, women are constantly badgered by reminders of their inferior position and the strict moral conduct they should abide by. The church’s male youth is aptly named Watchmen of Zion, their military drills conducted to chants of “guardians of the family, morals and the Lord.” Such persistent misogyny is interiorised in all its hatred, the women nested in the thorny bosom of the church slowly but effectively stripped of any sense of self. Their existence is one of servitude — to their families, to men, to the church, to God.
When Mari’s skin is violently ripped, what oozes out of her isn’t just blood. Pullulating from the unhealing wound is anger, the body and blood of Christ once symbolically offered in communion now physically acting as the triggering agent for revolt. As Mari undergoes a metamorphosis, the viewer begins to see the church and the community through her questioning eyes, bright lights morphing from halos to flames, faith slowly detaching itself from creed.
Silveira forgoes subtlety when weaving criticism of Bolsonarism into the film. Although the politician’s name is never mentioned directly, there is a wealth of references to key moments of his ascension to power. In 2016, one of Brazil’s biggest and most influential magazines penned an article on Marcela Temer, the wife of then-vice-president Michel Temer. The headline, in literal translation, read “beautiful, demure and homely,” the three words turning the private fantasies of the conservatives public and quickly appropriated by the Brazilian feminist movement to comment on the country’s rapid descent back into the sexist patterns of yesteryear. Michelle Bolsonaro (Medusa finds no coincidence in the naming of one of its protagonists), Jair’s wife, banked on this triad of values during her husband’s campaign. Her promise? To give Brazil back its “traditional family,” a core term to Bolsonaro’s eventual election.
Uncoincidentally, both “beautiful, demure and homely” and the concept of a “traditional” woman and family are weaponised in Medusa by the church leader who, of course, doubles down as a politician, preaching the values to parishioners slash voters. In this sharp dissection of the machinations of churches dressed as bubblegum coloured, pop-music playing havens, paired with an exploration of female coming of age in tandem with violence and desire, Silveira taps into much of what crowned her 2015 directorial debut, Kill Me Please, finding the space in her sophomore feature to further dwell on themes of longing and loathing as the driving forces — and ultimate destroyers — of community.
The work of a director confidently spearheading a new generation of Brazilian genre filmmakers, Medusa builds a sobering snapshot of late 2010s Brazil while never forgoing the endlessly entertaining beats of its premise. The result is a politically layered text primed for many a rewatch — and one hell of a fun one, too.
Rafa Sales Ross is a film journalist and programmer with work published on Sight & Sound, Variety, BBC Culture and Little White Lies. A proud Brazilian who relocated to dreary Scotland, Rafa holds a Master's in Film & Visual Culture and has researched portrayals of suicide in film for over a decade. Other specialities include accessibility-focused and community-led programming, Latin American Cinema and cinematic explorations of the diaspora. You can find her @rafiews or contact her via www.rafiews.com