In April of 2016, Veja, one of Brazil’s most prominent magazines, published a profile on Marcela Temer – the young wife of president Michel Temer – titled (in literal translation)  “Marcela Temer: beautiful, demure and a homemaker.” The article took the country by storm, igniting discussions surrounding feminism and how women were still reduced to conservative, click-baity-y adjectives. Turning the discussion even more pertinent was the fact that Michel Temer became president after the controversial impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the country’s first ever female president. 

In July of 2018, right-wing politician Jair Bolsonaro announced he would be running for president in the upcoming October elections, with the campaign slogan “Brazil above everything, God above all.” Bolsonaro echoed Donald Trump’s sensationalist campaign strategy, heavily relying on promises rooted in hatred and prejudice and vowing to stop the so-called “advancements of the left.” Bolsonaro’s priorities included supporting a “traditional Brazilian family,” stopping sexual health education in schools and removing Brazil from the Paris Climate Agreement. The politician – who often boasts about his past as an army captain – is also a vocal supporter of Brazil’s military dictatorship and publicly praised the likes of people such as known torturer Carlos Brilhante Ulstra, labelling the man a “national hero.”

In Anita Rocha da Silveira’s Medusa, a group of young women ambushes a girl walking alone at night. Mid-beating, one of them fervently asks  the battered victim: “Do you promise to accept Jesus into your heart and become a devoted, virtuous woman, submissive to the lord?” This brief yet carefully concocted question encompasses many of the distorted values propagated by political figures in a post-Rousseff Brazil and sets the tone for Silveira’s genre-bending sophomore feature. 

Neon lights kiss the stage as modestly-dressed women sing a catchy tune. The lyrics, however, are a dire contrast to the lighthearted beat, with mentions to the apocalypse and the mighty heaven awaiting for those who believe in the one true Lord. At the end of the song, a good-looking minister takes the stage to ask the crowd, “How much time have we wasted believing that the church shouldn’t decide the country’s future?” The question, of course, is entirely rhetorical, everyone in the room firmly joined by shared values. 

The women who take part in the thoroughly rehearsed choir are the same who gather to beat up other women when night falls. They believe themselves to be some sort of religious vigilantes – cleaning the city of impure Delilahs – and pride themselves on ever-impeccable looks, from pristine make-up to perfectly pressed cardigans. In their leisure time, they sit by the pool and tell cautionary tales to scare each other into compliance, the most famous of them all being the one of promiscuous actress Melissa (Bruna Linzmeyer), who became disfigured after an acid attack committed by a highly-religious woman who could no longer bare witness to the actress’ unchaste behaviour. To the girls, the attacker did nothing but respond to the call of duty. 

As the group wanders into the woods in search of their next victim, Mariana (Mari Oliveira) has her face slashed by an unknown attacker, experiencing the senseless violence she so carelessly applied to others. As a result of her disfigurement, the nurse loses her job at a plastic surgery clinic and, in her grief, becomes obsessed with finding Melissa. This newfound fixation leads Mariana to take a job in a hospital for comatose patients, where she hopes to uncover Melissa hiding amongst the many nameless, catatonic figures. 

The deeper the nurse gets into her frenzied quest, the further away she strays from the shackles of the church group. Here, Silveira confidently employs themes of psychological horror to fully portray the shift in Mariana’s behaviour, mania and paranoia slowly melting into transformative clarity. It is Mariana’s curiosity, too, that fuels one of the film’s most interesting allegories, the one surrounding the comatose. In her portrayal of inescapable numbness, Silveira is everything but subtle, the ever-sleeping people standing for those who are paralysed by helplessness as the world around them is consumed by political chaos. 

If the hospital corridors are filled with quiet dread, the church halls are drenched with uncontained excitement, the intensity of the communion uniting all faithful in an adrenaline-induced high. Music melts into light as the choir praises the Lord in the sky and the Man on the earth, a twisted celebration of even more twisted values. It is undeniably inside the church – physically and metaphorically – that Medusa finds its strength, comfortably juggling substance and form with the refined skills of a Cirque du Soleil performer. Alas, whenever the film threatens to stray away from the God-ridden walls, it stumbles, a testament to the grip Silveira has over the audience when fully diving into the film’s moral quest. 

When watched through the lenses of Bolsonaro’s Brazil, Medusa feels like a cautionary tale, a film consciously crafted to poke and prod at the country’s gaping wounds – left to bleed for far too long. It is also an accomplished piece of filmmaking that further solidifies Silveira, who had one of the most interesting directorial debuts of the last decade in Kill Me Please (2016), as one of the leading voices of this new generation of Brazilian filmmakers. At a time when the Brazilian government tries its best to suffocate art and culture, Medusa is a much needed breath of fresh air. 

Rating: ★★★★