The leader of a girl gang learns the horrifying truth about her environment in this genre-blending coming-of-age allegory from Brazil.
Brazil is a country whose contributions to cinema have had sporadic gains in reaching American audiences over the decades, with City of God being a box office and critical success in 2003, and Boy and The World gaining a Best Animated Feature film nomination at the 2016 Academy Awards. 2022 saw Anita Rocha da Silveira’s second feature film Medusa reach American audiences in a brief theatrical run, but upon its release to Blu-ray and DVD, the film should receive more recognition for its ingenious blending of genres, stylish visuals and creative storytelling that calls back to the Greek mythological tale in which its based.
Medusa takes place in an alternate version of Sao Paulo, where Mariana (Mari Oliviera) works as an esthetician, assists her best friend Michele (Lara Tremouroux) with her YouTube channel, helps her cousin Clarissa (Bruna G.) adjust to life at her school and within her family, and sings in an evangelical performance troupe with her best friends by day. However, at night, she and her fellow singers form a vigilante girl gang that prowls the streets hunting for women they consider sinners for being promiscuous and beat them into seeking enlightenment through Christ on what they deem as the rightful path to serving God.
However, after an attack leaves Mariana scarred and unemployed, she takes a job nursing at a dilapidated hospital, where an aspiring actress she and her friends left horribly disfigured in one of their ambushes is left comatose. Michele dares Mariana to find her and take a photograph, but the end result sets Mariana on a life-changing journey that opens her eyes to the misogyny and unreasonable beauty standards around her, as well as her own romantic desires and independence as a woman.
What’s fascinating about Medusa is how remarkably it blends elements of horror and the girl gang subgenre into a thoughtful and empowering coming-of-age tale that uses motifs from the titular Greek legend and religious allegory to tell its story. The film sees the snake-crowned Gorgon reframed from a monstrous being that turns its onlookers to stone into a figure of feminine liberation and independence. This is done through clever motifs in the storytelling, from a mural of snakes wrapped around an arm to a fiery closeup of a woman in ancient Greek attire screaming in terror after Mariana is let go from her job over the horrific scar on her face, further conveying her inner Medusa is slowly but surely waking up within her.
Medusa also goes back and forth from hilarious satire that pokes fun at the artificiality of YouTube celebrity and the absurd demands of evangelical speed dating, before gradually transitioning to atmospheric terror that sees Mariana maneuvering through the dark shadows of her hospital, and underneath the neon-tinged lights of the Sao Paulo streets that not only emphasize the horror of her gang’s actions but also the hypnotizing effect her church and minster have on her friends and community.
These choices make Mariana’s story of maturation as terrifying as they are inspiring, yet true to life all the same, as the moment of stark realization that everything one knows about his or her community turns out to be the very thing repressing their potential is initially frightening, only to become liberating with the kinship that comes with it once they’ve escaped their societal repression, found their tribe and strength in their freedom to live the life they wish.
All the elements da Silveria assembled to make Medusa pull their own weight as well; the performances from Oliviera and Tremouroux convey their progression towards self-discovery with nuances that gradually grow in their power from scene to scene, while the drones of the musical score emphasize the atmosphere in terrifying scenes, in addition to the beauty of Mariana’s burgeoning womanhood when she fantasizes about a male contingent of crusaders practicing a dance routine, her fascination conveyed via dazzling superimposition in the edit.
There is a lull toward the climax where the story pivots away from its elements of horror that make the film pop with vibrancy, and although the film has good intentions in criticizing Brazil’s current alt-right system of government, those who disagree with their sentiments will not find this story appealing. But in the interview featurette “Screams of Liberation” on the film’s blu-ray disc, da Silveria specifies that an intent with her new film was to shine a light on what religious extremism looks like in Brazil for audiences around the world, and open-minded viewers will be equal parts horrified and immersed in the world of Medusa right from the get-go, and be relieved for Mariana when herself, her family and friends escape the brainwashing confines of their church. Those who want to understand the magic of world cinema should seek out Medusa, as it is one of the most unique films of the year from a singular and exceptional voice on the rise.