Neon Bull | Blu-ray Review
Premiering at the 2015 Venice Film Festival in the Horizons sidebar, Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro’s exceptional sophomore feature Neon Bull won the Special Jury prize of its section before competing in the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival’s first ever Platform competition, where it secured a Special Mention (interestingly, both juries awarded top prizes to films obviously fixated on stagnating social injustices, including Jake Mahaffy’s Free in Deed and Alan Zeig’s documentary Hurt). After flexing a healthy run through the film festival circuit (where it was also programmed in 2016’s New Directors/New Films), US distributor Kino Lorber secured a limited theatrical release (only four screens) in April, 2016. While box office returns weren’t entirely paltry (domestic ticket sales neared thirty thousand), it didn’t make this an art-house sensation stateside, although noted favorable critical reception should secure its placement on many year-end best lists of 2016 theatrical offerings.
A portrait of the exhibition sport known as vaquejada, wherein cowboys attempt to throw bulls to the ground by their tails, Mascaro keeps a notable distance from the milieu, to such an extent we rarely see its main characters in close-up. The striking imagery often unfolds with the objective precision of documentary format, a tone enhanced by Mascaro’s free forming narrative, which basically revolves around the blighted dreams of its central character. But the end result is something much stranger and enigmatic than any of these descriptors can possibly capture, and Mascaro flutters between moments of meditative observation and bizarre nighttime proclivities with instances as equally lurid as they are supremely beautiful.
Iremar (Juliano Cazarre) is a handsome cowboy whose main role is to chalk the bulls’ tails before they enter the arena. His other duties run the gamut of manual labor associated with caring for the animals as well as all the travails of travel associated with such ventures. But his real dream is to design exotic clothing for women, a passion he is able to pursue with his colleague Galega (Maeve Jinkings), who wears his designs at strange events. It’s clear they have a sexual history, though he’s not the father of her outspoken pre-teen daughter Caca (Aline Santana), a girl very vocal about her displeasure with their lumpy colleague Ze (Carlos Pessoa). When a strange course of events finds Ze replaced by the fair-haired Junior (Vinicius de Oliveira), Iremar and Galega’s increasingly familial relationship seems to cool completely, leading him to titillating interactions with traveling perfume saleslady Geise (Samya De Lavor).
As far as the juxtaposition and eventual collapsing of mankind with his animalistic tendencies, it’s difficult to recall a point of comparison for Mascaro’s Neon Bull. In certain ways, its observational approach recalls something like Aaron Schock’s 2010 documentary Circo, which follows a Mexican circus troupe that’s been performing on the road since the 19th century. But the expressive mix of man and beast’s sexuality, calling upon pheromones and the collection of reproductive fluids, actually seems reminiscent of Walerian Borowczyk’s Eurotrash calling card, The Beast (La Bete), a 1975 bestiality provocation of the famous fairy tale which opens with vivid horse copulation.
One of Neon Bull’s more sensational moments finds Iremar and Ze stealing horse semen via masturbation of the manipulated animal, an act we see rather than imagine. From the sticky pages of a porno mag to Galega’s purchasing of sexy underwear, the specter of sex or titillation factors supremely in a landscape otherwise clearly dictated by manual labor and monotonous revelry.
Mascaro’s progressively extensive scenes, often filmed in one shot, eventually culminate in what will undoubtedly be included in future lists of most alluring cinematic sex scenes between Cazarre and a very pregnant Samya De Lavor. Provocative and sensual, the sequence is allowed to unspool organically and helps solidify the film’s ability to remain nothing short of utterly fascinating.
Cazarre, a well-known Brazilian actor who appeared in Jose Padilha’s Elite Squad (2007), Fernando Mereille’s 360 (2011) as well as Fernando Coimbra’s 2013 film Wolf at the Door, is commanding as the film’s central focus, and like the other professional cast members, manages to actually seem part of the landscape Mascaro depicts rather than engaged in ‘performance.’ Maeve Jinkings, also a rising Brazilian star thanks to turns in films from Marcelo Gomes and Kleber Mendonca Filho, is equally ordinary as a struggling single parent raising an increasingly petulant daughter amidst modeling Iremar’s exotic outfits while donning, of all things, a horse mask and hoofs.
Strange and beautiful, Neon Bull announces Gabriel Mascaro as a major talent of note amongst a growing community of Latin American auteurs.
Kino Lorber presents the title in 2.35:1 with 5.1 Surround Sound (the label has also released Mascaro’s first film, 2014’s August Winds in the same fashion). Picture and sound quality remain potent, especially considering DP Diego Garcia’s (who also shot Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor) frames containing provocative, even boundary pushing moments of sexuality. Two bonus features are included.
Behind-the Scenes Featurette:
This fourteen minute segment goes behind the scenes of rehearsal and filming.
Director Gabriel Mascaro answers several questions in this twenty-minute interview, including his thoughts on contemporary Brazilian cinema and notions of national identity.
Securing Gabriel Mascaro laudable international renown, Neon Bull vaunts the director among the frontrunners forming a new generation of phenomenal Brazilian auteurs (comprised of names like Kleber Mendonca Filho, Marco Dutra, Anna Muylaert, and Marcelo Gomes, among others) with this a moody, unpredictable drama.
Film Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆