MEDUSA, Bold Bubblegum Horror Pastiche
After the premiere of his first feature film kill me please in the Orrizonti section at the Venice Film Festival in 2015, rising Brazilian filmmaker Anita Rocha de Silveira unveiled her second feature at the Cannes Film Festival in 2021.
Astonished was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, bringing together daring new works. De Silveira showed up with the minimalist yet mature drama kill me please who reinvented the form of teenage slasher in order to deconstruct gender politics. The director continues his exploration of coming-of-age sexuality and sexual politics in Astonishedalbeit on a larger scale, with a more colorful palette and more extensive genre bending.
Medusa opens on A clockwork orange-like a gang of girls chasing a girl through empty streets. After a few beatings, the victim swears on camera to live a decent life as a disciple of Christ. De Silveira maintains the kind of tongue-in-cheek humor vital throughout the film, inspired by Greek myth in Ovid’s take on a priestess at the Temple of Athena whose hair was turned into snakes for having sex with her. Poseidon.
The protagonist, 21-year-old Mariana (Mari Oliveira), is part of the girl squad that proselytizes the streets with kicks and punches while charming her congregation in a girl’s choir, The Treasures of the Altar. , praising the Lord. As she searches for the next sinner in order to successfully de-slutify her, Mariana’s face is lacerated. The temporary disfigurement costs her her job at a beauty clinic and forces her to seek new work less committed to pushing beauty standards. She begins caring for comatose patients in a gothic-looking hospital.
De Silveira begins to unpack a lot from the start into the feminist nightmare that the film resembles. The girls are expected to behave in a pure manner, attend an evangelical congregation with songs and worship, and promote an ultra-conservative lifestyle as online beauty influencers.
Besides purging sinners, another hobby happens to be ogling admiringly their male peers from a paramilitary force, The Watchers of Sion, during their training. The uniformed male battalion maintains Christian order on the streets and interferes whenever progressive behavior emerges. Mariana’s disfigurement becomes a catalyst that drives her to explore life outside of conservative boundaries, and she gradually breaks away from her traditionalist bubble.
Astonished is shrouded as a theocratic dystopia of young adults, ruled by fundamentalism, beauty standards and machismo. Although obviously a political film reacting to the current situation in Brazil and to the younger generation, De Silveira, who also wrote the screenplay, plays with the concept of Christian totalitarianism. On the story side, Astonished could serve as a witty prequel to Gabriel Mascaro’s film divine lovewith whom he shares the neon-lit visuals, while aesthetically, de Silveira’s style leans more towards Juliana Rojas-Marco Dutra and playfulness merging the genres of Good manners.
After accidentally staring at the disfigured face of a local urban legend woman, Mariana begins to take over her agency without regard to the local establishment that works to demonize sex-positive women. The story takes place mainly with characters of the same age range as the protagonist without any presence of the adult population, which was the case of kill me please as well. By emphasizing the close-knit structure of the evangelical community, the writer-director reinforces its perception as a sect.
Many characters act as if they possess a bigoted herd mentality, so the eccentric behavior of the hospital staff works as a dissenting counter-action. De Silveira noted that she did not intend to satirize religion or personal beliefs, but “to draw attention to certain groups who make particular interpretations of biblical texts and contribute to the construction intolerant, sexist and homophobic environments tainted with hate”. Desire suppression becomes a powerful tool for effectively assuming psychological (and physical) control.
Similar to de Silveira’s debut kill me please, the director constructed a social commentary on the reinvention of gender tropes and a cross-gender fusion. The horror musical draws as much from the works of Dario Argento’s Giallo as it does from the surrealism of David Lynch, as the director filters coming-of-age conventions and the subject of teenage sexuality through a lens Politics. The Brazilian filmmaker continues the thematic trajectory of her previous feature regarding rising female sexuality, victimization and aggression, with a more socio-politically aware critique.
De Silveira uses the same toolkit as in her feature debut, in which she established her cinematic trademark and personal brand of style. Elliptical storytelling, dreamlike imagery, and clean, simple staging with heavy influence from a theatrical composition are used on a larger canvas than the director’s feature debut.
Additionally, the art production was adapted to better serve the identity of the story, with neon-lit nighttime backdrops and saturated color rendition. Astonished in a pastiche of bubble-gum horror reinforcing the film’s cheekiness and a youthful passion for rebellion and heresy. Anita Rocha de Silveira confirms her status as a rising Brazilian talent and a bold and imaginative filmmaker who manages to elegantly assimilate the whimsical to the political while rethinking the norms of the genre.
Review originally published during the Cannes Film Festival in May 2021. The film will be released on July 29 at the Angelika in New York, the Alamo Downtown in Los Angeles and the Laemmle NoHo in Los Angeles, via Music Box Films.