To borrow a catchphrase from political discourse: The cruelty is the point. Specifically, cruelty towards those who fall outside of the party’s sphere of protection is the point of fascism, bringing a sense of safety and superiority to those who are deemed worthy of inclusion. This belonging comes at a price, of course, for women who choose to align themselves with misogynist power structures — the thesis of Brazilian filmmaker Anita Rocha da Silviera’s latest film.
“Medusa” is da Silviera’s second feature, and continues the exploration of violence and adolescence in her debut, 2015’s “Kill Me Please.” But “Medusa” takes on a frightening new relevance thanks to its framing: Here, da Silviera looks at gender dynamics through the lens of a fresh-faced, dead-eyed Christo-fascist cult. Not so long ago, “Medusa” could be described as having light elements of science fiction, with oblique references to an unnamed demarcation line between the time before, when “deviants” roamed the streets unafraid, and a more righteous present. Now, the distinction is less clear.
If you were paying attention, then scenes where a clean-cut, handsome young pastor preaches about how “secular government was a mistake” were already ominous when “Medusa” premiered at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight last summer. But in the interim, the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade has raised the theocratic threat level even further. That renders scenes of roving gangs of teenage girls roughing up women they find walking alone at night, kicking them to the ground and calling them “whores,” chillingly prescient.
Da Silviera’s primary interest is in the mindset of these young women, who oppress those who are weaker than them as a release valve for their own built-up frustration. That’s the sympathetic way of looking at it — although the possibility remains that while some of them conform out of fear, others simply enjoy the power. Da Silviera seems willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Either way, it’s a bargain made between these girls, their camera-ready pastor, and the hulking young men with buzz cuts who act as his de facto army: They agree to protect a system that renders them little more than playthings and punching bags in exchange for smug self-satisfaction and the ability to take their anger out on people even lower in the hierarchy than them.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” famously explores similar themes of women throwing each other under the bus in the name of the patriarchy. “Medusa” examines more current, even scarier strains of apocalyptic Christianity and evangelical purity culture, with characters who have been taught from a young age to believe that the secular world is evil, Jesus is coming at any moment, and he wants them to be untouched and perfectly submissive when he arrives. The idea of purity is used as a weapon in the film, both toward the girls — at a Christian speed-dating event, one of the boys says that a “good woman” shouldn’t be there at all — and between them.
That’s where the viciousness of teenage bullying comes in. Although the church seems to know about and tacitly endorse it, the girls act alone when they don blank white masks and take to the streets at night. Sometimes they film their victims and post the videos online, giggling at the rising pageviews. Their leader Michele (Lara Tremoroux), a picture-perfect blonde — racism and colorism play a part here, too — hosts a YouTube series with topics like “How to take a perfect Christian selfie” and, more ominously, a tutorial on how to cover bruises with makeup. Appearance is of the utmost importance to Michele, who preaches that only the cleanest and prettiest among them will receive the ultimate honor of becoming a Christian housewife.
At the start, it seems as if “Medusa” will concentrate on the initiation of a new girl into the gang. But it quickly loses interest in that storyline and shifts over to Mari (Mariana Oliviera), Michele’s best friend, and her slow drift out of the faith. Early on, Mari receives a nasty cut across her cheek during one of their nightly raids, and loses her job at a Christian plastic surgeon’s office as a result. (This is a place of beauty, her boss tells her, and she’s ruining their image.) So she ventures out into the world and gets a job at a private hospital for coma patients, where a romance with a “heathen” coworker makes her question everything she’s been taught.
All this runs parallel to a strange, rather underbaked subplot about an actress who was the first victim of one of these Christian purity squads, who set her on fire as punishment for attracting too much male attention. The woman has become a media martyr in the interim, and the shallow, cruel Michele thinks that if Mari can snap a photo of the woman — who, quite conveniently, is a patient at Mari’s new job — then everyone will see that she’s ugly and will lose interest. The woman serves as the Frankenstein’s monster of the piece, popping up in monster-movie sequences lit in sickly hospital green.
Style often supersedes story in “Medusa,” particularly as it goes along. The color palette of the film — a very of-the-moment blend of Pepto pink, crisp white denim, chlorinated blue, and mint green — is immaculate. This Barbie dream house aesthetic is enhanced by the ‘50s housewife costumes, and offset by bright neon lights that bathe everything in a hazy, dreamlike glow. That aura is especially important in the horror scenes that dot the narrative, adding a layer of ‘80s-style slasher aesthetics that make the film’s lip-gloss sheen edgier by association.
That edge extends to the film’s cutting sense of humor. Da Silviera presents the church’s message about “lascivious, depraved” sinners and the faithful’s holy mission to destroy them with her tongue planted in her cheek, satirizing the hysterical tone of its rhetoric without downplaying its violent implications. Mari, Michele, and their friends sing in a church choir whose girl-group aesthetics belie the songs’ apocalyptic lyrics: as one tune goes, “when He descends from heaven, the whole universe will quake … At last, after the blast, when the Apocalypse arrives / I will survive.”
Da Silviera’s vision of bubblegum fascism is compelling, and “Medusa” sucks viewers in right away. Unfortunately, however, the film expends far more effort on aesthetics and world-building than it does on narrative. “Medusa” starts spinning its wheels about an hour in, and Da Silviera seems too preoccupied with style to notice — a real issue, considering that the film is over two hours long. As impeccable as the vibe may be, “Medusa” would be more effective if it holistically incorporated its themes and look into a fully fleshed-out narrative, rather than simply indulging them for their own sake. This overindulgence dulls what starts off as a razor-sharp incision into the malignant tumor of Christian facism, making the cut ultimately more shallow than it could be.
Music Box Films will open “Medusa” in limited release on Friday, July 29. A national theatrical rollout will follow.