Iuli Gerbase’s directorial debut The Pink Cloud will forever be known as the prophetic apogee of quarantine cinema—for those who have the stomach to get to know it in the first place. As we are still living through a pandemic (one which, multiple years in, now affects us ambiently, in uncountable ways), the film is nearly unwatchable. It cannot be covered the way most movies are in most outlets—that is, through the scrim of its entertainment value. Nothing about this film is entertaining, though nearly everything about it is significant. To watch it in the early months of 2022 is to experience something excruciatingly visceral, which serves first and foremost to remind us that every other trip to the cineplex we’ve taken in the past two years (in those rare instances when we’ve actually been able to go) has been nothing more than a cheap attempt at distraction from the painful conditions of our present reality.
That Gerbase’s film was entirely written and produced before the pandemic began is the basis of what makes it so powerful. That it is not a particularly artful movie—more concerned with the banalities than the extremities of its conceit—makes it all the more powerful still. It has at this point assumed the unfortunate heft of an oracle; everything about The Pink Cloud, from its art direction to its acting to its discomfitingly rose-tinted lighting design, has taken on a helplessly symbolic dimension. This oracular quality is the main selling point of the movie; still, not nearly enough people will see it, and for good reason. It will assume, for years to come, a cult status—though there is nothing low-budget or campy about it. It is simply an affront, hitting too close to home. It is an unwitting allegory of life spent indoors, of sacrificing everything for immediate safety, and it presents an almost fastidious study of enduring isolation just months before the whole planet would get to discover such things for themselves.
The bleakest aspect of this production is revealed by its opening shot. From the very start, we are allegiant witnesses to the titular and toxic pink smog—which appears simultaneously across the whole world, and is liable to kill a person in under ten seconds—more than we are to any humans who outlast or resist it. The cloud is what we experience, first and last. An anonymous woman, out walking her dog, succumbs to it in the title sequence to prove its voracity. We do not need to see more. The pathology of it, and the logistics of one’s defense against it, do not matter. The world retracts into lockdown.
Little of this outside world, or the global reaction to quarantine, is ever shown—something which probably would have felt like a flaw in the narrative scope had this story remained merely speculative. As things stand today, this obliqueness actually makes it more sinister, with the slightest snippets of news coverage, or a hesitant reaction as characters first receive government aid, enough to transport us back many months, to watching Italians sing on their balconies as we wipe down our first bags of groceries with bleach. We know the drill, and the film seems to know that we know.
The majority of The Pink Cloud centers, hermetically, on the travails of a single couple, though we learn nothing about their backstories or what brought them together.. What passes for plot in the remainder of the film is simply the experience of watching two strangers survive and cohabitate—and they never transcend their status as strangers. Giovana (Renata de Lélis) and Eduardo (Eduardo Mendonça) are not particularly well-suited to one another. They met only the night prior to the pink cloud’s appearance, and it’s possible to read the film like a fable of puritanical punishment, as these two characters get stuck in the same house for years, paying the price of their casually libertine lust. Over the course of their time in shared isolation, they will fight, make up, conceive and raise a child, break up (splitting custody across the apartment’s two floors), and reunite. Love is a shell game driven by circumstance, although the circumstances have always seemed quite broad until now.
Both characters have their own external relations—engaged with entirely over a lightly modified version of FaceTime—who appear here largely to make the plot more painful. Eduardo’s father, who was home with his other son when the cloud first descended, slowly slips into Alzheimer’s. Giovana’s younger sister is still a child at the start of the movie, stuck having a sleepover at a friend’s house. Ninety minutes later, she is entering her late teens, and growing resistant to her older sibling’s concerns about her maturation and sexual needs (the only man in the home of this never-ending slumber party happens to be the girl’s friend’s father). These are horrible circumstances, and we know enough about them now to fill in the gaps—about the unmentioned people who are trapped at home in need of medicine, nursing, and basic companionship. A friend of Giovana’s sometimes video-conferences her just to reassert her own loneliness; her partner was out buying bread when the cloud first appeared. Apparently, he is still trapped in the bakery.
The Pink Cloud is stridently indifferent to the politics these circumstances imply. Early into the cloud’s commandeering of the outdoors, airtight tubes are externally suctioned to windows as a supply chain for food—though who implements or commands them is never revealed. Several years in, the characters spread strawberry jam on their toast, though who grew, harvested, and preserved these strawberries; whether they predate calamity or came from the tube; and whether or not such provisions are now considered a delicacy—all of these questions are sidestepped. The global economy appears to somehow persist. This comes to represent one of the most eerily prescient aspects of the film—two years into COVID, most people living comfortably enough to be on the receiving end of supply chains can scarcely imagine how such mechanisms now operate, and what kind of labor and incentives are required to man them. The disruptions in our own airtight tubes from above have served only to reveal how little we know about these things, and how the perception of business as usual tends to transcend any gesture toward or desire for transparency.
Culture, too, is strangely absent from Gerbase’s harrowing film. When the characters watch anything that isn’t one another, it tends to be the nature channel, or instructional videos—the most utilitarian content to fulfill what they’re missing. Our extended quarantine, by contrast, has been much more imaginative, filled with the baubles of scandals and trends, the moments of celebrity gossip which allowed us, for a second, to forget about the pandemic still ruling our lives. Though Giovana at one point gets lost in a VR headset (plainly reminiscent of Meta’s Oculus model) simulating a beach, our itch for escapism is greater than hers. We not only wish to be removed from our reality, but to feel like things are actually happening elsewhere.
Two years into Covid, the pandemic has already produced its great satire: Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021), which gleefully decries everything that’s still being lived through. With Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021), the pandemic has also been seamlessly incorporated into a work of great art—with a surgical mask just one extra layer in the director’s grand epic of faces and masks, performers and people. But Gerbase’s Pink Cloud will stand apart as a twenty-first century Cassandra. There is no equivalent to or justification for its prescience. Its lack of catharsis, or comfort of any kind, is haunting. That it is only now getting its theatrical release, due to events it almost seems to have inspired, is more haunting still. Why anyone would want to make a film like this today is impossible to know, though crueler and more sadistic things have naturally been put on the screen and remained forgivable, because they didn’t come true. The Pink Cloud is neither a satire nor a great work of art. It is not even a horror movie proper, but rather, a work of true terror—of uncanny proximity, like finding oneself trapped inside the screen. It is therefore excusable, in today’s deeply imperfect circumstances, if there is nothing to like about what we see.