By Nicole Veneto
Brazilian director Anita Rocha Da Silveira’s latest film is a genre-bending howl of female rage at right-wing Christian conservatism.
medusa, directed by Anita Rocha Da Silveira. In select theaters on July 29th.
The Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade and federal abortion law came suddenly, but not unexpectedly; America’s conservative Christian right has spent the last fifty years gradually reversing the landmark decision of death by a thousand federally mandated cuts. We knew this was coming, but in the meantime, between the first draft leak and the official decision, the Biden administration and senior “pro-choice” Democrats like Nancy Pelosi absolutely did Nothing except for anti-choice candidates, begging to squander more campaign funds. In the end, my sister and I were the ones who broke the news to our mother (who was fifteen when Roe came out) and she stopped immediately in horrified disbelief. Despite the certainty that nothing would change in Massachusetts, I felt the unspeakable anger and sadness wash over her in waves. Before she had me, my mother was a social worker helping at-risk girls and young women, many of whom she escorted to clinics through howling protesters. It all has me running down the streets screaming at the top of my lungs until either my legs or vocal cords give out, whichever comes first. It’s the only thing I feel in my power to do.
This is the culmination of Brazilian director Anita Rocha Da Silveira’s latest film medusa, a genre-bending howl of female anger in the face of right-wing Christian conservatism. In the great feminist tradition of reinterpreting and rewriting the Medusa myth, Da Silveira modernizes the story as an allegory for the violence women inflict on one another in order to preserve phallocentric power structures and associated notions of female purity and subservience. Most interpretations of the Medusa myth treat the character as a monstrous woman whose sexual desirability was a crime in and of itself. As punishment for being raped by Poseidon in her temple, Medusa was transformed by the virgin goddess of war Athena into a hideous, snake-haired gorgon whose visage turned men to stone. Beheaded by Perseus as a wedding gift to his king, Medusa long represented female malice and the threat of castration until feminists reclaimed her as the avatar of female anger. With her second feature film, Da Silveira channels all of that repressed female rage into an inspired cinematic form that’s equal parts horror, fantasy, dark satire, and sci-fi character drama.
In a near-future Brazilian society where church and state have merged, Mariana (Mari Oliveira in a strikingly physical and emotional performance) and her best friend Michele (Lara Tremouroux) dedicate their lives to an evangelical Christian cult led by a charismatic Preachers (Thiago Fragoso) whose dogmatic sermons about the nation’s moral failings and women’s innate evil draw crowds of youth. During the day, the girls preach the good news of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and sing bubblegum pop songs about the coming apocalypse in the cult’s girl group, The Treasures. At night, Mari and Michele wear white masks and roam the streets as part of a vicious gang of girls who hunt, attack, and publicly shame perceived “sluts” who they believe deviate from God’s “righteous way” for women.
Appearance is everything for The Treasures – every “good modern Christian woman” knows how to “show” oneself chaste in the eyes of God, as intuitively as taking the perfect selfie for Christ (which Michele later demonstrates). Aside from holding each other to the cult’s impossibly “pure” standards of femininity, the girls are kept on their toes by a cautionary tale about a beautiful sex worker/actress named Melissa (Bruna Linzmeyer) who is being married to a “holy woman” , who puts on her face, is horribly disfigured by fire as punishment for “spoiling” the city with her sexual promiscuity. No one knows what happened to Melissa after that, but Mari and Michele believe she’s still out there somewhere, and they intend to drag her into the public eye for more ritual humiliation.
One night, Mariana’s face is slashed by a would-be gang attack victim defending against The Treasures, leaving Mari with a subtle but noticeable scar on her cheek. She promptly loses her job as a plastic surgeon’s assistant because her disfigured face angers wealthy clientele. Potential admirers of the sect’s paramilitary boy group, The Watchmen of Sion, immediately lose interest in Mari. Her “distortion” disqualifies her as a suitable wife worth showing off. Mari’s resulting psychic fallout over the scar causes her to gradually begin to question her own beliefs, eventually identifying with Melissa to the point of believing herself to be possessed by her spirit while moving away from the cult and moves further towards their own self-realization.
In recent years, several films have aimed to articulate how girls and young women experience misogyny amid the rising cultural backlash against fourth-wave feminism, often utilizing diverse genres ranging from straight horror to dark comedy reach for psychological thrillers. By using all three to varying degrees, medusa Skirts are pigeonholed: it creates a world uncomfortably similar to our own but worse given its extremes, and smugly satirizes the present with a near-future dystopian message. It’s an incredibly effective way for films to capture the zeitgeist “first as tragedy, then as farce” in all its maddening unpredictability. America and Brazil share this tide of perpetual chaos better than meets the eye.
in the medusaIn the accompanying press releases, Da Silveira cites the rise of far-right Christian conservative youth movements under the government of President and walking COVID Petri dish Jair Bolsonaro as inspiration for the conspiracy. But the role of women in supporting and abetting these ultra-conservative crusades cannot be underestimated. Stories of teenage girls attacking one another in the street over perceived promiscuity — and sharing the beating on social media — troubled Da Silveira enough to recognize that violence among women is a crucial form of control, that of patriarchal ones societies is exploited. The Medusa myth is considered one of the earliest examples of this dynamic to be propagated throughout history, enshrining “women who seek to control one another [as] Part of the very foundation of this civilization.”
In this regard, it’s worth noting that Da Silveira names none other than Dario Argento’s supernatural Giallo Suspiria as a key creative influence medusa. conceptual, medusa doesn’t seem to have much in common with the Eurohorror cult classic about ballet students who are terrorized by a coven of witches running their German dance academy. But the stylistic cues Da Silveira takes from Argento’s cinematic assault on the senses are unmistakable: bright Technicolor mood lighting, expansive and physically imposing sets, richly detailed staging, etc. suspiracyIt’s a film that dozens of filmmakers have (poorly) emulated in one way or another, to the point of uninspired cliché.
in the medusa‘s case, the visual references that Da Silveira borrows from suspiracy emphasize the two films’ shared interest in women’s violence against women and the upholding of hierarchy (although this is far more evident in Luca Guadagnino’s thoughtful adaptation than in the sensually lurid original). I looked at Argentos again suspiracy a few days after the visit medusa in preparation for a two-parter suspiracy (1977) vs. suspiracy (2018) Follow my podcast, and I was surprised at how many small details Da Silveira recontextualizes and pays clever homage to; When Mari finally encounters Melissa in the coma ward she may or may not be in, Melissa’s silhouette can be seen behind a curtain backlit by neon green light, not unlike Helena Markos’ snoring outline, bathed in blood red.
With medusa, Anita Rocha Da Silveira occupies a distinctive place in the pantheon of celebrated international feminist filmmakers such as Lucretia Martel, Claire Denis and Agnieszka Smoczyńska, shaping generic forms and tropes into a howling treatise on the return of the oppressed of the feminine. If we women are really something outrageous, then God help those who want to destroy us.
Nicole Venetia graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies with a focus on Feminist Media Studies. Her writing was featured in MAY Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazineand Boston University Hoochie readers. She is the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or the death of cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi as well as on Substack.