Anita Rocha da Silveira’s MEDUSA is a savage satire of self-enforced female repression. Set in an unnamed country that could be the filmmaker’s native Brazil, or any country with a vocal and fervent minority currently vying to bring Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale to life, it is a lushly metaphorical take on the kind of right-wing religious fascism where women are decorative accessories and should be overjoyed to be gifted with that secondary role.
One of the most fervent believers in this brand of religion is Mari (Mari Oliveira), a young nurse from the lower classes who caters to the aesthetic needs of aging women by day. By night, she roams the city streets with her masked gang of fellow devotees delivering Old Testament judgement to women who dare to go out alone at night. And, yes, we are supposed to see the irony there and in many other places during the film. When one woman dares to fight back, Mari is left with a scar on her face that disturbs the clientele at her place of employment. Her firing leads her to a new cause, finding Melissa (Bruna Linzmeyer), a beautiful superstar who refused to live the “pure” life prescribed by smooth-talking minister (Thiago Fragoso) who is Mari’s spiritual guide and a serious (and seriously ambitious) political contender for their country’s leadership. Melissa, it seems, was set on fire by a religious fanatic, and though urban myths abound over what became of her, Mari is certain she is hiding in a remote clinic where the comatose are cared for according to their financial ability. She takes a job there for the sole purpose of taking a photo of Melissa’s ravaged face and post it online to warn the worldly about what fate awaits them if they refuse to be saved.
As with the best satire, the edges of reality are twisted just enough to allow the exaggerated extrapolation of the real world to seep into the action. Take that camera-ready minister in his neon-festooned church, and the way nobody finds it odd that he will cease ministering to a troubled soul when a politician calls. Christian speed-dating is a chance for men to talk and women to affirm their status as mere objects as they listen with a smile on their faces, even when being verbally attacked. Mari’s best friend, Michele (Lara Tremouroux) is a blonde Barbie-wannabe who can barely contain the unresolved discontent that surfaces in barbs at others. She finds an outlet as an online influencer, dispensing tips for how to take selfies for the glory of God (avoiding carnal filters) and leading the church choir in bouncy pop songs that long for the apocalypse (and the destruction of the unrighteous).
As a righteous woman, Michele assures her followers that beauty is the only thing that matters for a modern Christian woman. That and perfect obedience, the which she practices by submitting meekly (is that a hint of anger?) to her boyfriend (João Oliveira), leader of the Watchmen of Sion, the church’s officially sanctioned vigilantes, aka the embodiment of toxic masculinity. They are charged with physically safeguarding morals, family, and the Lord (who apparently can’t manage this for Himself), while Michele, in full Fury mode, finds a more satisfying outlet leading that ci-mentioned roving band where Mari received her scar.
The clinic proves to be a place of disturbing compassion, as well as a garden of earthly delights, where Mari makes discoveries, she hadn’t anticipated. The identity of the sleeping woman in the platinum wing, where the rooms are private and the machines are the best remains a tantalizing mystery, but other mysteries threaten to subsume that quest with something more compelling, both for her and for us. Wild parties erupt in the woods nearby with masked revelers celebrating in bacchanal fashion. As she wrestles with her own carnal desires, and the unwelcome but seductive challenges to the strict teachings she has embraced, Mari’s hair, tamed with flatirons and elastic bands, explodes in its curly glory, presaging the scream that will erupt from her when she can no long fool herself about what her religion really preaches. Oliveira, as the wide-eyed fanatic turned wide-eyed innocent turned wide-eyed sensualist is the perfect tour guide through the funhouse. She has the gift of absolute sincerity that is also as complex as Tremouroux’s Michele, a woman keeping the mask of perfect happiness on through sheer force of will, and terrified of what a crack will reveal to herself about herself.
Visually, MEDUSA presents a world of heighted reality, rife with deep shadows, candy colors, and enigmatic interludes juxtaposed with barbs as pointed as those lobbed by Michele as her desperate best (worst). It is also a world where drains loom large, and the symbolism is no less artful for being obvious, from the beauty mask Mari washes off at the beginning of the film, to blood, to the dangerous secular music emanating from one at the coma clinic that begins Mari’s transformation.
MEDUSA is anger unleashed with wild abandon. A heart-stopping comedy that is as arch as it is passionate, as ready to embrace absurdity as pathos. Freedom is the enemy, cruelty is kindness, and 1984 has never looked as insidious. Or as near.