On a contemporary city street, a group of eight young women appear, wearing identical, blank white masks, a cross between the Phantom of the Opera and a china doll. They chase down another young woman, screaming epithets at her: “Delilah”, “homewrecker”, “filthy pig”, and such, viciously beat and kick her before finally forcing her to admit her own guilt. As the attackers film the event, they force the woman to agree to “become a devoted, virtuous woman, submissive to the Lord”. Over the opening credits, the eight girls walk away from the scene, smiling and cheerful. This gruesome spectacle introduces the unique dystopian vision that is Medusa.
Brazilian director Anita Rocha Da Silveira’s second feature has been compared to a wide range of past films, from Suspiria to The Purge. While it contains elements of science fiction, fantasy, satire, and horror, it doesn’t fit easily into any single category. It certainly brings The Handmaid’s Tale to mind – except with significant differences in approach, and a great deal less solemnity.
The story, also scripted by Da Silveira, was inspired by the rise of what she describes as “radical Christian factions” in Brazil in recent years but uses Greek mythology as a structure on which to hang the unusual plot. Director Da Silveira introduced the film at TIFF by reminding us of the original Medusa, who was punished by the virgin goddess Athena for unchastity, by being transformed into a creature so unsightly, her gaze could turn others to stone. “That,” Da Silveira explains, “Was the starting point for this film”.
The director refused to pigeonhole Medusa, saying: “It can be a horror film, it can be a comedy, it can be a fantasy. It can even be a musical”. In fact, while it seems odd to describe this violent and disturbing film as a musical, the score is an outstanding and highly original part of the film. The use of music to create a mood and to enhance each scene is brilliant, from the incongruous 1960s pop songs, to select background music by Siouxsie and the Banshees, to the awkwardly modernised church hymns; and the background score, arranged by sound designer Bernardo Uzeda and partly inspired by 1970s film music, is incredibly effective.
Set in an imaginary near future, Medusa posits a Brazil in which fundamentalist Christian groups have gained power and influence. The film allows the more serious questions of political power and changes in the law to recede into the background and instead focuses on the actions of the youth, particularly teenage girls involved in the religious movement. At the forefront are the eight adolescent girls from the first scene, who are well known in the religious movement as a singing group, Treasures of the Lord, known familiarly as The Treasures. Wearing modest white dresses, they appear at religious gatherings where they perform weirdly contrived songs of devotion and feminine docility which usually come across as unconscious self-parody – for example, their first performance in the film, a breezy pop song about the apocalypse.
While following the adventures of The Treasures, the film introduces secondary characters who expand our view of their church. First, a girl recently sent to a boarding school run by the rapidly growing religious sect, who usefully provides the point of view of someone entirely new to their beliefs, allowing explanations for the audience’s sake. Second, the teenage boys, who seem to be involved in constant and obsessive martial arts and quasi-military practice, hinting at battles yet to come. Finally, a very few older women appear to provide background. It is from one of them the girls hear the modified version of the Medusa myth: a sort of urban legend about a young woman named Melissa, who was attacked in the street and set on fire for perceived indecency, by a young woman similar to the Treasures. The attack resulted in Melissa becoming permanently disfigured, and having to go into hiding. The mysterious figure of Melissa has become a form of mythology for the sect, the woman who burned her a Beowulf, a shining example to the girls, just as Melissa is a warning to them to follow the rules. The boys’ group is occasionally seen, engaged in their military drills; girls like the Treasures are understood to be future spouses of the boys known as the Watchmen (in the original, ‘Vigilantes de Siao’).
The serious subject matter doesn’t disqualify Medusa as a comedy by any means. The film enjoys skewering the frivolity of the sect, their efforts to make trivial activities into expressions of religious faith – for example, a hilarious little digression into a workshop on ‘taking a Christian selfie’. The satire is razor-sharp, and even the darkest scenarios are given a farcical side. The film grows more serious toward the end, as it begins to focus more closely on one of the Treasures, in particular, a girl named Mari (Mari Oliveira), who has begun to secretly question the sect’s precepts and delve further into the story of Melissa. The footage of her investigations becomes dreamlike and unnatural, almost as if Mari had entered into mythology itself. The legendary Melissa begins to haunt her dreams, leading to a climactic scene that once again draws from the myth of Medusa, but in a far more ominous way, suggesting that the Gorgon may have her vengeance in the end.
This is a decidedly angry film, in spite of its comedy and often lighthearted passages, and it is always carefully targeted. Turning conventional feminine behaviour into acts of piety, and violent assault into virtue, are shown as a ludicrous but believable form of rationalisation; and the girls adopting their sect’s view, and gleefully disparaging or attacking the ‘unworthy’ is made all too plausible given the circumstances. Most potent of all is the myth of Medusa that runs beneath the entire story, slowly shifting from a tale that supports and glorifies abhorrent ideas and actions, to one that threatens to come to life and destroy its own creator, as it relentlessly transforms from myth to real life. The strange and intense final act is a distinctly feminist bit of drama. Whether primarily a horror film, comedy, fantasy, or musical, with Medusa director Da Silveira has definitely begun to hit her stride.