IndieLisboa has been at the forefront of the "new Brazilian film" lobby in Portugal for a while now: they brought in Kleber Mendonça Filho's landmark Neighboring Sounds and followed that up with the maybe not as memorable but still pretty striking features from Marcelo Lordello, Renata Pinheiro and André Novais Oliveira. This year's competition gave a shot to Anita Pinheiro da Silva's Kill Me Please (a film I wasn't overly enthralled by) but the festival did show out of competition Gabriel Mascaro's Neon Bull, probably the most celebrated Brazilian feature by a new director since Neighboring Sounds ever since it was unveiled at Venice last year.
Funnily enough, the Indie audience wasn't so thrilled; you could feel the bewilderment suspended in the room at the end of the packed screening, with a number of friends finding it overly stylized and mannered. For me, though, I must admit it's precisely that mannerism, its refusal to comply with expectations, that make Neon Bull such a good film as well a massive leap forward from the director's previous August Winds.
What's so good about Neon Bull is that it's totally open. You don't know where the story is going to go next, let alone what it's all about, until the film is already halfway, and even then Mr Mascaro keeps pulling the rug from under you, with his elegantly, ravishingly photographed scenes (the DP is Mexican Diego García, who's worked with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Carlos Reygadas) that seem to go on for slightly longer than they should, or don't cut away the way you expect them to.
Tighter narratively than August Winds, Neon Bull is a chronicle of the daily life of a small group of ranch hands travelling through Northern Brazil with the bulls that are the real stars of the local "vaquejada" rodeos, assuming a lovely, leisurely pace that allows us to discover the characters in their own time and through what they do. Making good use of documentary footage and research in order to underlie its fictional tale, the film follows the emotional and friendly shorthand that exists between this particular crew: truck driver Galega (Maeve Jinkings, the closest this generation of Brazilian filmmakers has to a muse), her stubborn teenage daughter Cacá (Alyne Santana) and cowhand Iremar (Juliano Cazarré), a handsome roughneck with a sideline as a dress designer for Galega's own exotic dance sideline.
It's a skewed family unit if ever there was one, but an entirely accepted one in this seemingly conservative, rural world, and also a surrogate family that seems to have carved out its own niche while absolutely not corresponding at all to the standard gender behaviours - here, sexuality is seen as something joyous that transcends genders or inclinations, as a natural and naturally accepted part of life. Though Galega's husband has long left and Iremar doesn't have a steady girlfriend, it's immediately clear they are not really an item, which initially makes all the more surprising Mr Mascaro's decision to follow what happens when new elements are thrown into the mix - Junior (Vinicius de Oliveira), a preening, narcissistic substitute cowhand who comes in at short notice, and Geisy (Samya de Lavor), a pregnant security guard doubling as a door-to-door Avon lady.
Just as Neon Bull discovers what its characters are all about, so does the viewer feel as if she's discovering a world she didn't realise existed, giving depth, nuance and emotion to characters usually relegated to the stock archetypes of rural dramas. That sense of surprise and discovery, of a film that isn't doing what you expect it to or going where you thought it would, is one of the most powerful feelings in a modern film landscape seemingly built on signposting everything from a distance, but it's not the only reason why Neon Bull fully justifies the attention it has been getting. It's simply a damn good film, one that has actual people inside and tells their stories in a way that draws you in and keeps you hooked long after the actual screening's finished.
BR, UY, NL, 2015, 104 minutes
CAST Juliano Cazarré, Alyne Santana, Maeve Jinkings, Vinicius de Oliveira, Carlos Pessoa, Samya de Lavor, Josinaldo da Silva, Abigail Pereira, Roberto Berindelli; DIR Gabriel Mascaro; SCR Mr Mascaro with Daniel Bandeira, César Turim and Marcelo Gomes; DP Diego García (widescreen); MUS Otávio Santos and Cláudio Nascimento; ART DIR Maíra Mesquita; COST Flora Rebollo; ED Fernando Epstein with Eduardo Serrano; PROD Rachel Ellis; Desvia in co-production with Malbicho Cine, Viking Film and Canal Brasil