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By José Teodoro
Neon Bull begins with a languid lateral pan across widescreen-friendly corral fencing, bulls lazing one atop another spied between the slats. This image is soon followed by that of a plane of parched mud littered with coloured rags and dismembered mannequins. Later we see a woman waxing her pubic hair in the cab of a truck—a Brazilian giving herself a brazilian—and men bathing from buckets in steam-diffused penumbra. Later still we see one couple making love upright alongside a cow pen in sepia-toned night and another stretching out on the vast surface of a cutting table in a textile factory. Flesh and vegetation, machinery and topography, man and beast: everything becomes equalized under Gabriel Mascaro’s gaze. Which is a testament to the unity of politics and aesthetics in Neon Bull, Mascaro’s seventh film and second fiction feature, which earned a Special Mention in TIFF’s inaugural Platform competition after winning the Special Jury Prize in Venice’s Orizzonti section. Brazil’s social and economic inequities are the underlying concerns of every Mascaro project—he also has a studio practice that’s yielded several installations—but, more than in any previous work, Neon Bull weds those concerns, without compromise, to an extraordinarily crafted, often painterly beauty.
Written by Mascaro with César Turim, Daniel Bandeira, and Marcelo Gomes—a filmmaker whose penchant for fusing wild sensuality to social critique is echoed here—Neon Bull follows a handful of characters working behind the scenes of a travelling vaquejada, a Brazilian form of rodeo that’s hugely popular in the northeast region where the film is set. Neon Bull’s central character is Iremar (Juliano Cazarré), a hulking cowboy with an artistic streak. In his downtime he designs and constructs outfits for what the film’s alluring fantasy sequences depict as a sort of avant-barnyard burlesque, performances more befitting the outskirts of Twin Peaks than your typical vaquero peeler bar. Iremar is ornery and boastful, something of a bull himself, only extending kindness to Galega (Maeve Jinkings), his co-worker and model, and Cacá (Aline Santana), Galega’s young daughter, who has been forced to trade schooling and stability for a life on the road with Mom. Iremar lacks education but yearns for refinement, something absent from his errant existence until he meets Geise (Samya de Lavor), a very pregnant yet immaculately groomed perfume vendor by day and security guard by night. The meeting of Iremar and Geise is about the closest Neon Bull comes to a major narrative event. For the most part the film is episodic and lyrical, immersing us in a milieu, finding its arc by gradually deepening our understanding of these jobs, these people, and how they attempt to make the best of their dearth of professional opportunities.
Mascaro’s filmography is permeated by an interest in the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum, though he started at the top. Built around interviews with several Rio de Janeiro penthouse dwellers, High-Rise (2009) examines urban verticality as the actualization of the proverbial social totem pole. A couple marvels at their ability to enjoy the sights and sounds of gang violence from a safe remove. A woman is especially thrilled to have a separate service entrance so as to minimize interaction with the help. Subjects hang themselves again and again in High-Rise, though Mascaro frames them as symptomatic of a fraught social dynamic, rather than its source.
Working people are conspicuous for their near-absence in High-Rise, or, rather, their distance from the camera: Mascaro makes telescopic images of construction workers into a subtle visual refrain, a reminder of who’s left out of the equation. Avenida Brasília Formosa (2010), however, takes us directly down to ground level, chronicling the gentrification of a Recife neighbourhood and the resulting dislocation of its low-income residents. The film modifies High-Rise’s fairly straightforward documentary style with a looser, more poetic, observational approach.
With Housemaids (2012), rather than continuing to affirm his directorial signature through exploratory camerawork, Mascaro gets out from behind the camera altogether, choosing instead to furnish a number of children with cameras with which to film their family’s housemaids. (Mascaro’s interference is limited to the editing stage.) A poignant study of class disparity within confined spaces, the film is shrewdly conceived yet ultimately feels more like a contribution to an ongoing thematic project about servility and domestic life in Latin America, one taken up by numerous Latin American filmmakers before and since—e.g., Sebastián Silva’s The Maid (2009), Abner Benaim’s Maids and Bosses (2010), Anna Muyleart’s The Second Mother—than it does a major contribution to Mascaro’s own oeuvre.
Mascaro’s breakthrough came gusting in with August Winds (2014), his fiction feature debut that nonetheless teems with documentary virtues: the image of people scaling vertiginous palm trees, a cemetery constantly engulfed with sea water, a child duo of whirly tube players offering droning accompaniment to a man busily cleaning a bloated corpse. The film focuses on Shirley (Dandara de Morais), an aspiring young tattoo artist who has left the city for a seaside village to care for her elderly grandmother and work at a coconut plantation, and on the discovery of a dead local who washes up on the beach but, despite the possibility of foul play, arouses not the slightest interest from the authorities. Bodies, whether dead or very much alive, occupy Mascaro’s frame in ways both spectacular and politically pointed. The image of comely and curvaceous Shirley and her handsome boyfriend laying naked, post-coitus, in a wagon brimming with coconuts is as charged with commentary on labour conditions as it is with eros. It’s also telling that Mascaro, in a cameo that quietly reasserts his credentials as a documentarian, breezes in at the film’s midpoint to play a researcher collecting audio recordings of wind: he discreetly embeds himself in the community while leaving a minimal footprint.
August Winds is a bold statement, but Neon Bull fortifies Mascaro’s distinctive confluence of work and sex, his sympathetic yet unsentimental depiction of poor and/or marginalized characters, and adds to all this a new level of aesthetic rapture, a large part of which can surely be attributed to Mascaro’s inspired collaboration with Cemetery of Splendour cinematographer Diego García. (Mascaro himself was credited as DP on August Winds, as well as on his 2012 documentary short Ebb and Flow.) Just as Iremar proves more ambitious than any of Mascaro’s previous characters, so Mascaro himself aspires to craft a cinema that elevates every element, from narrative complexity to social commentary, from class-conscious composition to spellbinding durational gambits. Neon Bull moves from moments of bucolic meditation—replete with a lovely score by Otávio Santos, Cláudio N., and Carlos Montenegro—to evocative sequences capturing cowboys in action to comic hijinks straight out of Tom McGuane: during a flamboyant nocturnal livestock auction, Iremar and a colleague clandestinely jack off a studhorse to collect his coveted semen. At 32, Mascaro has already created a body of work at once diverse and thematically consistent, and Neon Bull is its fullest realization.
Cinema Scope: You were born in Recife. Did you have much contact with the countryside when you were growing up?
Gabriel Mascaro: Despite being on the coast, Recife, a beach area, has a lot of influence from people who migrate from the countryside for economic and social reasons. They come to Recife in the hope of finding better opportunities. And the culture of the northeastern countryside is very prevalent in Brazilian music, literature, and cinema. A lot of people have, over the years, latched onto this romantic image of the northeast as a place of cowboys.
Scope: Something in the camerawork of Neon Bull seems to long for a way of touching the landscape and the animals, touching the natural world, touching skin. I find myself wondering if this longing I sense is a longing for something the director knows, a kind of nostalgia, or a longing for something the director is trying to know, to get closer to.
Mascaro: One of the most fundamental things in cinema today, in my view, is the relationship between the camera and the body—the distance between the camera and the body. If you get too close you might reinforce certain stereotypes. If you get too far away you run the same risk, but the problem tends to be with the former. Getting too close can disempower the characters. The question of camera distance is also a way of addressing Brazil’s economic and social transformation. The confluence of economics and human life changes the environment. This relationship that you sense between the camera and skin and bodies is my way of translating concepts of pleasure, violence, dealing with animals. Bodily concepts.
Scope: We traditionally associate close-ups with character identification, but that tradition only has us identifying with the head and face, not with the body. By taking the distance that you do in Neon Bull, my feeling was that you are allowing the characters to have more autonomy over the landscape. They own the space in a way that they would not were you to confine images to their head and shoulders.
Mascaro: Absolutely. The whole film was conceived so that that the camerawork would add value to the characters’ relationship to the landscape. This creates a blueprint where the actor is not set within the frame in such a way that he or she cannot move. The actor has total freedom to roam around and engage with the environment and the animals, and create an atmosphere in which there is an ongoing dialogue between nature and man.
Scope: Let’s talk more about the relationship between economics and bodies. It seems to me that nearly every scene in the film bears some relationship to the characters’ work. Even the very sensual, erotic scene near Neon Bull’s end unfolds on the cutting table of a textile factory floor. No matter what these characters do they seem unable to escape their workspaces.
Mascaro: I’m very interested in the banal, which is something that can obviously be found in our working lives. I was interested in bringing the concept of desire into this quotidian workspace. I found it very interesting that the sex scene you mentioned should take place in a location where clothing is mass-produced, that our characters could get completely naked in that space.
Scope: I’m also drawn to the gender dynamics in the scene. Iremar is this big, handsome, macho guy—despite his passion for design—yet here it’s the woman who has the power. She’s the one who rips open the Velcro, lays down the gun, who undresses, who initiates sex. And it’s unfolding in her workplace. She also represents something of a higher class, no? She sells perfumes, and Iremar appears to associate perfumes with class ascension.
Mascaro: One of the themes in this story of human transformation and social transformation is gender transformation. More than an inversion of gender, what I’m proposing in the movie is really the expansion of ideas around gender.
Scope: Despite the abundance of cowboy movies, there aren’t so many examples in cinema history of films that actually show the real work involved in building a rodeo. I can think of The Lusty Men (1952) or Junior Bonner (1972). What made you want to set a movie within the backstage life of a rodeo?
Mascaro: That’s a very good question. I wanted to use vaquejada as a platform to examine the Brazilian socioeconomic dynamics we’ve been discussing, the growing differences in social and occupational status. Vaquejada functions as a confluence of many of these elements. Vaquejada is like a lab where all these transformations are coming together. Economic contradictions, gender contradictions all show up. I have a special interest in body politics, or the bio-political, so I want to take physical love and affection and the effect of work on the body and place these things side by side. I want to see the same bodies sharing affection and engaging in work.
Scope: Do you go to vaquejada? Are you a fan?
Mascaro: I went once when I was 15. Mostly I drank a lot of beer. I studied at a school where there were a lot of people from the countryside and vaquejada was a very strong part of their lives. As I moved through my teens and became more cultured I felt compelled to push that ostensible country bumpkin culture that included vaquejada to one side. But when I came to film vaquejada, the idea was to show this culture and its practices without condemning it. Or supporting it. I just wanted a very honest presentation of this culture without judgment. Even though I might not like the culture of vaquejada, as a filmmaker I have the challenge and the privilege of falling in love with characters who inhabit that environment.
Scope: You depict Galega as a less than perfect mother, yet because of the framing, and because of the time you allow us to spend with her, we inevitably feel compassion for her. She’s like most of your characters, invested in, but not idealized.
Mascaro: That’s a very good observation, because with Brazil’s northeast being slammed in recent years with issues of hunger and all that, we typically get very pitying portraits of people from that region. In fact there has always been a tendency to extol their pureness. They are always rendered as heroes that will lead Brazil in a new direction. Neon Bull tries to disentangle this. There are no pure characters, no pure souls. Everyone is normal. Life goes on.
Scope: Which brings us back to this idea of compassion through form. Besides the question of distance, I also wanted to ask about what becomes the film’s signature camera movement, these slow lateral pans. What do these achieve in your mind?
Mascaro: There are moments when the camera is warmer, when it gets closer, and other moments when the camera assumes the characteristics of machinery. But even in the more mechanical shots there is a sense of life flowing, moving on its way, its fluidity taking control of the scenes. When, as in the beginning of the movie, you see one bull laying atop another, or when you see Iremar hanging clothes on a wire and another person shows up talking about a magazine, the camera movements begin with a more mechanical quality but gradually take on a more human touch.
Scope: Which is reflected in the way the characters touch animals, when they comb or groom them, for example. Sometimes they’re warm and gentle. Other times this contact becomes mechanical, a means to an end, a way of getting the job done and moving one more animal down the line. Either way, of course, they’re still touching.
Mascaro: There is a very special scene that I like, the one where the woman brands the bull. Before this, the cowboy instructs her to be careful not to step on the horse’s leg. There’s this ironic double message about being so careful and gentle with the animals, yet we’re still going to press burning iron into their flesh and mark them as our territory.
Scope: Can you talk about how your fiction features reflect or expand on your work as a studio artist or documentarian?
Mascaro: I feel like for an artist my age there’s perhaps something a little schizophrenic about my work in these different fields. In Housemaids I gave cameras to kids so they could film their housemaids at work. I personally filmed nothing; I just assembled scenes. It’s a film, made with affection, about work in Brazil. Slave work, really. I recently had a visual art exhibit at the São Paolo biennale where I used images of policemen chasing demonstrators in the streets of Brazil. The work was made entirely with police camera imagery. I don’t have to be behind the camera to express these ideas around the body and work. Each work demands different support and different forms of expression.
Scope: I think most spectators who see Neon Bull without knowledge of your previous work are going to be struck by its craft, by the sheer beauty of the images. But clearly it would be a misconception to assume that craft and beauty are essential to your art.
Mascaro: What you’re saying is very interesting to me, because the natural next question has to do with how you perceive beauty. In Neon Bull there’s an early scene where you see a landscape covered in rags. It has a beauty to it, but it’s a beauty with a lot of ambiguity. The film aspires to give you enough time to observe something and wonder, “Is this beautiful? Is this fun?” It gives you time to consider these questions. Someone asked during the Q&A yesterday why the scenes were so long. There is the scene where the guy is straightening his hair; the whole theatre erupted with laughter. If I cut right then it would have become a scene with no other point except to provoke laughter, but the scene goes on for another two minutes and goes into a different dynamic, asking different things from the audience. The duration of these scenes is also a way to return the power of the scene back to the people in them. After the laughter dies down, they still have something to say.
Scope: I thought about this question of duration a lot with regards to this aforementioned sex scene in the textile factory. You really can’t cut that scene any earlier than you do, because that moment at the end, just before you do cut, when he rolls over, that’s when you do see this kind of surrender in Iremar. This alpha male always angling for power by the end of this lovemaking scene rolls over like a spent bull.
Mascaro: That was a very challenging scene. A long scene. Getting to this point you’re talking about was a difficult process. In the editing we really did try to cut it down, but whenever we did it just became another sex scene in a movie. Letting it play out in its entirety is what gives it the power that it has. Sometimes you have to take these risks. Even if people walk out of the movie!
Scope: Since we’re talking about how to end something, please talk about the end of Neon Bull. Do you think about what happens to your characters after the credits roll?
Mascaro: The film proposes a state of suspension, of holding these dreams. The film doesn’t say that it’s impossible for these characters to transform their lives, but neither does it concern itself with insisting that they will do it. The movie ends and the characters continue with their daily lives. We don’t want to be naïve. It’s a tough life they’re living.
Scope: There is a sense of some new path having opened for Iremar. He often looks down on others, but when he meets this perfume-selling security guard he seems to have recognized an equal. There’s something of a social message in this. Because we know that Iremar’s experiences may provide him with new tools to negotiate his own future.
Mascaro: It’s true. And what you’re saying makes me want to properly answer your earlier question about what happens after. I’d like to imagine that once Iremar closes that gate he walks way from that place, without ever looking back.
Special thanks to interpreter Daniel Galvao for his unusually attentive and immensely helpful translation.