By Nicole Veneto
Brazilian director Anita Rocha Da Silveira’s latest film is a genre-spliced howl of feminine fury in the face of right-wing Christian conservatism.
Medusa, directed by Anita Rocha Da Silveira. In select theaters on July 29.
The Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and the federal right to an abortion came suddenly but not unexpectedly; America’s conservative Christian right has dedicated the last 50 years to gradually undoing the landmark ruling via death by a thousand state-legislated cuts. We knew this was coming but, in the interim, between the initial draft leak and the official ruling, the Biden administration and high-ranking “pro-choice” Democrats like Nancy Pelosi did absolutely nothing except back anti-choice candidates and beg for more campaign donations to squander. My sister and I ended up being the ones to break the news to our mother (who was 15 when Roe was issued) and she immediately shut down in horrified disbelief. Even with the assurance that nothing would change in Massachusetts, I intuited the unspeakable rage and sadness rolling off her in waves. Before having me, my mom was a social worker who helped at-risk girls and young women, many of whom she escorted to clinics through howling mobs of protestors. It all makes me want to run through the streets screaming at the top of my lungs til either my legs or my vocal cords give out, whichever go first. It’s the only thing I feel within my power to do.
Such is the climax of Brazilian director Anita Rocha Da Silveira’s latest film Medusa, a genre-spliced howl of feminine fury in the face of right-wing Christian conservatism. In the grand feminist tradition of reinterpreting and rewriting the Medusa myth, Da Silveira modernizes the tale as an allegory for the violence women inflict upon each other to preserve phallocentric power structures as well as their attendant notions of feminine purity and subservience. Most renditions of the Medusa myth treat the figure as a monstrous woman whose sexual desirability was a crime in and of itself. As punishment for being raped by Poseidon in her temple, Medusa was transformed by the virginal war goddess Athena into a hideous snake-haired gorgon whose visage petrified men into stone. Decapitated by Perseus as a wedding gift to his king, Medusa long represented female malevolence and threat of castration until feminists reclaimed her as an avatar of female rage. With her sophomore feature, Da Silveira channels all that repressed feminine fury into an inspired cinematic form that’s equal parts horror, fantasy, blackened satire, and sci-fi character drama.
In a near-future Brazilian society where church and state have merged, Mariana (Mari Oliveira in a strikingly physical and emotional performance) and her best friend Michele (Lara Tremouroux) dedicate their lives to an Evangelical Christian cult led by a charismatic preacher (Thiago Fragoso) whose dogmatic sermons about the nation’s moral failings and women’s innate evil attract droves of youth. By day, the girls preach the Good News about their lord and savior Jesus Christ and sing bubblegum pop songs about the impending apocalypse in the cult’s girl group, The Treasures. By night, Mari and Michele don white masks and roam the streets as part of a vicious girl gang chasing down, assaulting, and publicly shaming perceived “sluts” they deem to be straying from God’s “righteous path” for women.
Looks are everything to The Treasures — any “good modern Christian woman” knows how to chastely “show herself” in the eyes of God as intuitively as taking the perfect selfie for Christ (which Michele demonstrates later on). Besides holding each other to the cult’s impossibly “pure” standards of femininity, the girls are kept in line by a cautionary tale about a beautiful sex worker/actress named Melissa (Bruna Linzmeyer) horribly disfigured by a “holy woman” setting her face on fire as punishment for “tainting” the town with her sexual promiscuity. Nobody knows what happened to Melissa afterwards, yet Mari and Michele believe she’s still out there somewhere, and they intend to drag her out into the public eye for more ritual humiliation.
One night Mariana’s face is slashed by a potential gang attack victim defending herself from The Treasures, leaving her with a subtle but noticeable scar on her cheek. She promptly loses her job as a plastic surgeon’s assistant because her marred face upsets the affluent clientele. Potential suitors from the cult’s paramilitaristic boys group, The Watchmen of Sion, immediately lose interest in her. Her “disfigurement” disqualifies her as a suitable wife worth showing off. Mari’s resulting psychic fallout over the scar gradually leads her to start questioning her own beliefs, eventually coming to identify with Melissa to the extent of believing she’s possessed by her ghost as she veers further away from the cult toward her own self-actualization.
Several films over the last several years have set out to articulate how girls and young women experience misogyny amidst the mounting cultural backlash against fourth-wave feminism, often harnessing different genres, ranging from straight-up horror and dark comedy to psychological thriller. In employing all three to various degrees, Medusa skirts being pigeonholed: it creates a world that’s uncomfortably like our own but worse given its extremes, sardonically satirizing the present via a dystopian dispatch from the near future. It’s an incredibly effective way for films to encapsulate the “first as tragedy then as farce” zeitgeist in all its insane unpredictability. America and Brazil share this deluge of constant chaos more than you’d think.
In Medusa’s accompanying press notes, Da Silveira cites the rise of radical right-wing Christian conservative youth movements under President and walking COVID petri-dish Jair Bolsonaro’s government as inspiration for the plot. But women’s role in aiding and abetting these ultraconservative crusades can’t be underplayed. Stories of teenage girls attacking each other in the streets over perceived promiscuity — and sharing the beat-downs on social media –disturbed Da Silveira enough to realize that violence amongst women is a crucial form of control exploited by patriarchal societies. The Medusa myth stands as one of the earliest examples of this dynamic promulgated throughout history, enshrining “women wanting to control each other [as] part of the very foundation of this civilization.”
On that note, it’s worth mentioning that Da Silveira names none other than Dario Argento’s supernatural giallo film Suspiria as a key creative influence on Medusa. Conceptually, Medusa doesn’t seem to share much with the Eurohorror cult classic about ballet students terrorized by a coven of witches running their German dance academy. But the stylistic cues Da Silveira takes from Argento’s cinematic assault on the senses are unmistakable: bright Technicolor mood lighting, spacious and physically imposing sets, richly detailed mise-en-scènes, etc. Suspiria’s a movie dozens of filmmakers have (poorly) emulated one way or another to the point of uninspired cliché.
In Medusa’s case, the visual references Da Silveira borrows from Suspiria accentuate both films’ mutual interest in female-on-female violence and the preservation of hierarchy (albeit this is much more apparent in Luca Guadagnino’s thoughtful adaptation than the sensually lurid original). I rewatched Argento’s Suspiria a couple days after viewing Medusa in preparation for a two-part Suspiria (1977) vs. Suspiria (2018) episode of my podcast, and I was surprised by just how many little details Da Silveira recontextualizes and pays clever homage to; when Mari finally encounters Melissa in the coma ward she may or may not reside in, Melissa’s silhouette is visible behind a curtained sheet backlit with neon green light not unlike Helena Markos’s snoring outline bathed in blood red.
With Medusa, Anita Rocha Da Silveira carves a distinctive place for herself in the pantheon of acclaimed international feminist filmmakers like Lucretia Martel, Claire Denis, and Agnieszka Smoczyńska, molding generic forms and tropes into a howling treatise on the return of the feminine repressed. If we women truly are something monstrous, then god help those who seek to destroy us.
Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader. She’s the co-host of the new podcast Marvelous! Or, the Death of Cinema. You can follow her on Letterboxd and Twitter @kuntsuragi as well as on Substack.