Many filmmakers obsess over characters living on the margins of civilization, but Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro has the rare ability to burrow inside their experiences. In two narrative features and a handful of documentaries, Mascaro's filmography blends an textured storytelling with anthropological investigation. The newest of them, "Neon Bull," offers startling proof of this talent.
Mascaro's first narrative feature, last year's "August Winds," captured a seaside community with warm, delicate images that yielded a rich portrait of its residents' daily lives. While that movie went to great lengths to capture the contradictions of lush scenery and the ennui of everyday life, "Neon Bull" marks a significant, uncompromised step forward. Mascaro's vibrant depiction of Brazilian cowhands delivers a detailed look at a nomadic universe that's simultaneously flamboyant and gritty. While technically a fictional narrative, it provides a bridge to Mascaro's nonfiction background by emphasizing the sights and sounds of a contained environment. Lyrically involving and deeply sensual, "Neon Bull" showcases a full-bodied artist in command of his form.
While it offers little in the way of exposition, "Neon Bull" maintains tight focus on a handful of characters, foregrounding the adventures of the charismatic young Iremar (Juliano Cazarré). Like his cohorts, Iremar works in vaquejada, an unwieldy sport that involves unleashing bulls into a ring and yanking them to the ground by their tails. The rough, lively activity finds Iremar traveling from one dusty arena to another, managing the beastly animals while tending to his dream of designing exotic dancing outfits. This aspiration sets up the movie's fantastical qualities early on, with a scene in which Iremar outfits fellow vaquejada worker Galega (Maeve Jinkings) in a horse mask and hooves, as she performs a seductive dance while her surroundings are baked in a dreamlike red. It's the first indication of the way "Neon Bull" vaults from realism to poetry as it explores these characters' unique lives.
In addition to Galega, Iremar's circus-like entourage includes her young daughter Cacá (Alyne Santana), who bemoans her absent father while coping with a harsh existence that seems to force her into early adulthood. Iremar's portly, foul-mouthed colleague Zé (Carlos Pessoa) provides a regular source of comic relief, a kind of Hardy to Iremar's Laurel as the pair repeatedly deal with the logistical challenges of tending to the herd. Mascaro captures their activities one nuanced moment at a time. While somewhat formless, the movie flows naturally from tender moments, observational tangents, bursts of physical comedy and graphic sex; through it all, a complete setting comes together in precise detail.
"Neon Bull" is impossible to categorize except in its own evolving terms. Tears flow early on, when Galega breaks down in her daughter's presence at the tail-end of a family argument. Another movie might have built to that moment as its climax, but Mascaro foregrounds the emotion and works outward from there, deepening the tone. From profound sadness, the movie veers into comedic territory, with an ill-fated attempt by Iremar and Zé to steal a prize horse's semen that leads to the movie's best punchline. At times, "Neon Bull" ventures into magical realism, as in one remarkable sequence that finds Zé locked in an intimate embrace with one of the group's horses against a black void.
With its insular focus on the relationship between humans and animals, Mascaro fetishizes the dank stables and manure-filled barns that form the group's homes, but so do his characters. Whereas "August Winds" found two characters having sex on the same coconuts they made a living plucking from trees, "Neon Bull" features a pair of intimate encounters — one among cows and the other on the top of a metal table in a barren factory. The latter occurrence, a prolonged, graphic sequence involving Iremar and a pregnant cologne saleswoman, showcases Mascaro's extraordinary ambition: The scene continues for so long that it starts to strain from excess, then pushes beyond those extremes to get at a point of pure tonal immersion — the lavish romanticism that defines Mascaro's perspective.
The sense of consistency between these fragmentary scenes owes much to a complex range of colors. Much as he does with Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Cemetery of Splendour," cinematographer Diego Garcia heightens the atmosphere with a diverse palette. Mascaro's camera regularly observes his cast from a distance, but rather than creating an alienating effect, this approach allows them to establish a painterly vision of life and landscapes intertwined. Just as Robert Frank captured his Americans, Mascaro has unearthed the subtle ingredients of Brazilian identity by peering beyond its mainstream images.
While it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, "Neon Bull" took on striking definition in the context of the massive program at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it made its North American premiere. The Toronto lineup showcases an industry in constant battle mode, struggling to find commercial product and awards bait even as it acknowledges, with a new section, the game-changing evolution of television. Audience sensibilities keep shifting and the future of the movies remains uncertain. But "Neon Bull" provides a striking response to questions surrounding the precise nature of the movies. It's a cinematic achievement that works on its own terms, beyond any semblance of marketplace pressure, and speaks to the unique power of the medium. Mascaro offers a window into a world that not only promises an original milieu, but invites viewers to become a part of it.
"Neon Bull" screened this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Kino Lorber acquired it for U.S. distribution.