Superbly crafted and executed, the stylish “Medusa” is a fierce and fearless feminist horror film that pierces the heart of toxic faith.
I remember, growing up, that some of my shortcomings as I grew were attributed to my lack of faith. If only I’d spent more time in a church, my mother lamented as she laundered my mostly black wardrobe and winced at my taste in art and media; perhaps I might have seen more color in the world had I more strongly embraced God.
She still ends her texts with “Dios te bendiga, mija,” no matter where I’m headed. If only she’d seen this film.
The sophomore feature from director and writer Anita Rocha da Silveira, Medusa is a tale of feminine faith and wrath, as a group of young girls bound by the rules of their conviction and enraged by their binds don masks and hunt sinners when the sun goes down.
A colorful explosion of feminism and religion shot against the backdrop of Brazil’s stunning landscapes and city structures, Medusa coils itself around the paradoxes women face and the country’s embrace of the rise of radical Christianity as they try to devote themselves to a higher power without sacrificing what makes them women at their very core.
Sexuality, anger, devotion, and womanhood are all tested as the faceless, determined girls search for the fallen throughout the city and the sin growing within themselves.
We open on a colorfully lit woman, inverted and gyrating in a silk garment. Her movements become more sexual, and slowly, her garment begins to come away. As the dance unfolds, we begin to zoom out and see this is a video being watched by a young woman on a bus approaching her stop.
After she gets out, however, it appears she’s not alone. “Slut!” “Jezebel!” Come the shouts from a large group of girls in featureless white masks. The target begins to run but is quickly overtaken by the group, pushed to the ground in the street, taunted, and shoved.
“Do you deserve to be punished?” they mock, readying a cell phone to start recording the weeping girl. “Do you promise to accept Jesus into your heart and become a devoted, virtuous woman submissive to the Lord?” they demand of their victim. She swears.
With this powerful introduction, Medusa launches into credits and a determined soundtrack as the posse marches through the shrouded streets, removing their masks to laugh and smile.
Away from the street, we find a woman surveying the city below through binoculars, the news blaring in the background. Blackouts have been leaving the city in havoc, a lack of rain is also cause for concern, and men are putting up signs that say “Watch and Pray” on the city walls. The news turns to a religious program, and we see below two women with suitcases arriving at the building.
The young woman brought to the house is Clarissa (Bruna G.), brought here by her aunt, who hopes to find her an education and a god-fearing life like her hostess, Mariana (Mari Oliveira).
Mari prepares a crying Clarissa for a new school, telling her that though she misses her old friends and her family, moving here presents opportunities that Mariana wishes she had. Tidying the girl up, we quickly flash to what Mariana’s time away from home looks like.
Dancing, smiling, and crooning religious tunes under blue and purple neon lights, the ladies, which include Mariana in the choir, dressed in modest white dresses, serenade a group of followers in the name of the Lord. “Such pretty, talented women,” their pastor (Thiago Fragoso) says, ushering them off stage, “And faithful, too,” he makes sure to add.
The pastor goes on to regret the lack of faith present in government and that the people’s faith during this time was the source of God’s presence when all hope seemed lost as the country appeared to be in crisis.
He urges them not to be influenced by the outside world but to instead take their message and spread it! This is the mission. As he speaks, we pan over a sea of faces lit a deep pink, eyes closed, hands cast upwards as though to capture the message in their palms.
During this devout moment, Mariana is signaled to look at her phone, where she sees their most recent video — and victim — is going viral, to their pleasure.
We begin to wonder if this is merely inspiration for another masked trip into the night.
During the day in pastel, pearls, and perfect poses, the girls discuss horrific sin as though it were Sunday brunch.
They watch the men of the church prepare like soldiers, their faith as a whole being described as nothing short of militant.
When the girls’ late-night escapades have consequences for Mariana, faith soon begins to crack in the face of human wants and needs, the postulation of having a boyfriend or husband, and the natural but somehow sinful desires of a woman begin to develop.
Instances of pure sensuality starkly contrast the consistent holy message, and moments of freedom and reckless abandon can quickly devolve into violence and tragedy. Criticism of women’s social habits, dress, and even how clean they may be spiritually and physically begins to wear away, and we can see the smiling façade crack as the double standard becomes readily apparent.
Mari Oliveira gives a powerhouse performance, oscillating between tense complicity and gleeful vengeance; her portrayal is nuanced and ever-evolving.
Intense cinematography with brilliant lighting choices makes it difficult to look away even when the subject matter gets gruesome, painting a glowing portrait of religious conflict at the center of an effervescent city.
Stylish and unafraid, Medusa puts on the mask of righteous female indignation and turns its feminine soldiers of god against the movement that demands pious perfection.
Venomous as a snake bite, da Silveira invites women to explore all facets of themselves and defies any critics of this feminine advancement to interfere at their own risk.