Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 09, 2016 4:14 pm 
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Tale of rodeo roustabouts breaks the barriers between documentary and fiction

Gabriel Mascaro is a Brazilian documentary filmmaker who has turned to fiction films -- but not entirely: his two features are drenched in exotic real life atmosphere. Both his 2014 debut feature August Winds and his follow-up Neon Rodeo are so steeped in realism they feel like documentaries, but with a visual beauty and sensuality and vague plot line that only conscious manipulation could make happen. Yet it's troubling to see things happen that are "real." Neon Bull takes some thinking about, and the experience it offers is a confusing one. It left me puzzled and not wholly satisfied. But Mascaro is a heck of an interesting director.

We're following a little vaquejada rodeo troupe in Northeastern Brazil that moves a bunch (I didn't count) of silver bulls pairs of cowboys bring down in shows by trapping them with horses on both sides and one grabbing their long tails and pulling them to ground. That's the show. But it's not what this film is really about. It's about people on the fringes of that action. The macho, model-handsome Iremar (Juliano Cazarré), who's a wizard with animals, and also sews sexy costumes; the tubby, gross Zé (Carlos Pessoa), skillful with a tricky prize mare; their lady truck driver, blonde Gaega (Maeve Jinkings), who is also a sexy nightclub dancer wearing a horse-head mask and elaborate G-strings costumes crafted by Iremar; and Gaega's feisty young daughter Cacá, who often gets in trouble but holds her own in the work -- plus Junior (Vinícius de Oliveira, an actor since as a child he played a key role in the classic Central Station), who's brought in later, to replace Zé -- none of them perform in the rodeos. They're just roustabouts, traveling with the bulls, preparing the carefully powdered ends of their long tails, sleeping in hammocks, living by their wits, living their dreams. Those are their roles in the film. They're all actors.

But they're also doing these things -- cleaning up the bullshit, taming horses and such. Zé and Iremar sneak into a fancy horse fair and try to steal a prize stallion's semen -- with comically failed results. That's not the only erect penis we get to see because Iremar has sex with a pregnant woman on the big work table of clothing factory, secretly, of course, at night. These things happen. Where's the fiction? You see why I call this troubling.

The images shot by dp Diego Garcia (of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor) are composed in wide aspect ration with a soft look where the camera is often standing a little back, to compose a landscape, most memorably a horizon with glowing crepuscular light and multiple shots of the bulls in a row framed by wooden fences. What could have been ugly and crude is unified and often handsome-looking; the color quietly glows. Handsome livestock and handsome male bodies are seen equally, as in a dark panorama of almost a dozen well-built rodeo men showering in a reddish humid scene. Never has a movie contained sensuality so gritty or photographed with such casual beauty.

Mascaro creates a keen sense of this de facto "family's" day-to-day life with a few notable incidents, but the action is meandering, with no particular goal -- and the film suffers from underdevelopment of characters and their lack of backstories, despite a unifying feel of sensuality and ignoring of gender barriers. To some viewers this may feel pointless, and the physicality disgusting at times. What holds it together is a sensuality, a wallowing in muck that seems somehow relaxed and pleasant, perhaps in a spirit that's particularly Brazilian. Iremar, Gaega, and Junior with his long hair wear thrown-together outfits, but they look stylish, despite the heat and mire and muck and shit one can almost smell. Will their marginality eventually catch up with them? Or in Brazil is dolce far almost niente a spirit that can sustain a happy life?

Peter Debruge in Variety says of Diego Garcia's images that "Selected at random, any given frame of the film might stand alone as powerfully as a Dutch genre painting (think Brueghel or Vermeer)." Boyd van Hoeij pretty well sums up the film's feel and themes in his Hollywood Reporter review when he writes of its "indirect meditation on bodies and the way they are used, both in the animal world and in the human one," with an emergent "portrait of a society in which gender and body norms are much less rigid than one would expect."

Neon Bull/Boi Neon, 100 mins., debuted in the Orizzonti section at Venice where it won the prize. The Brazilian rodeo drama also screened at the Toronto Film Festival in the inaugural Platform section (honorable mention), with a number of other nominations and awards. Screened for this review as part of the March 2016 FSLC-MoMA New Directors/New Films series. To be released in US theaters by Kino Lorber. Opens on Friday,8 Apr. 2016 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

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