Anita Rocha da Silveira’s Medusa
Part myth, part horror story, part thrilling adventure, part feminist absurdism, in short, a surrealist masterpiece billed as a “genre-bender.”
The lights have not come up as I leave the theater after watching writer/director Anita Rocha da Silveira’s latest film Medusa (2021). I glance over my shoulder in hopes of watching the final credit roll to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” rewritten with evangelical Christian lyrics. Instead, I see a shadow flit across the screen, blacking out the credits as it moves. Medusa is part myth, part horror story, part thrilling adventure, part feminist absurdism, in short, a surrealist masterpiece billed as a “genre-bender.” I have been so entranced by this film that, even while a higher part of myself recognizes the familiar motion of a theater attendant rushing past the screen, I think for a moment that this shadow is part of the movie, one last unsettling bonus scene buried in the credits for the true votary to catch. The fact that I could believe the filmmaker would intentionally end her film with a subtle jumpscare like that is a testament to the power of Medusa.
This film is a nightmarish trip—though ultimately empowering—touring the myriad ways in which women keep each other down. Medusa (which opened in New York and LA on July 29th) is the next feminist cult classic following the legacy of films like Promising Young Woman (2020) and The Witch (2015).
Mari (Mari Oliveira), the star of Medusa, knows exactly who she is: She is beautiful and well-dressed. She does not have a compulsively-straight hair out of place. Her makeup elegant and modest, she makes for the ideal nurse to a Ken-doll plastic surgeon. She is faithful and a singer for her church, and, at night, she is a mask-wearing evangelical vigilante who beats up the “impure” women marring her city in Brazil.
Da Silveira uses saturated colors inspired by Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977), twists on pop music, a retro aesthetic, and dance to shape the unique vibe of this radiant film. She also uses artwork as punctuation points in the film. All together, the use of various arts creates an uncanny vision of a world too much like our own and yet not quite the same, which da Silveira says was very intentional and inspired by the rise of militant youth groups and evangelism in Brazil.
When teenaged, wild-haired Clarissa (Bruna G.) moves into her boarding house, Mari is prepared to share her wisdom, faith, and grace with a flick of lip gloss and a pass of the straightening iron. Mari’s best friend Michele (Lara Tremouroux)—the Regina George of the church choir by day/girl gang by night—welcomes Clarissa into their group by telling her the chilling tale of Melissa (Bruna Linzmeyer), whose story mirrors the myth of Medusa. An anonymous woman in a white mask one night threw kerosene on party-girl Melissa and lit her on fire to “purify” her. Michele and Mari’s mask-wearing church group was inspired by this so-called heroic act. Before too long, Clarissa has been indoctrinated into the girl gang and is throwing her own kicks and punches upon the Mary Magdalenes of town.
Street art, in the form of posters, punctuates the film in three instances, offering a moment of respite and reflection from the wild ride of this movie. In one scene, Mari stands before the art; in another, she watches it through her binoculars; another time, she takes a picture. Her meditative actions allow us to rest with her a moment to feel the weight of this film’s political satire and critique. The posters also show motifs that echo the Medusa myth, such as an androgynous pink face with a snake about to enter its mouth or a two-headed snake wound like a fist. The posters’ pastel pinks and greens are ghostly echoes of the vivacious hues of the film overall. According to The Met, Medusa became a popular motif in ancient carvings, so the contemporary poster art in the film simultaneously evokes modern Brazil and Ancient Greece.
The posters were the result of a collaboration with illustrator Clara Moreira, who specializes in “very detailed pencil work.” Art director Dina Salem Levy further explains to the Rail that the drawings are actually inspired by the Adam and Eve mythology. The phallic snake was designed to act as “a counterpoint to the posters with religious sayings, provoking the ‘forbidden’ sexuality,” according to Levy. Da Silveira claims she had little to do with the creation of the posters because “it was important to me to give her [Moreira] freedom … to create it.”
Respecting the space of another artist feels assuring, as if the feminist messages of the film were truly being enacted behind the scenes. Da Silveira also says that while the other stars of her debut feature, Kill Me Please (2015), either found acting work or took other career paths, "Mari was the only one … struggling to find jobs as an actress, and she was the only Black one in the group." Da Silveira wrote the lead of Medusa to be on Mari's “level” and now she is building her career: “She’s living as an actress.”
One night, in Medusa, the gang chases a young woman into a park replete with ominous statuary. The park’s sculptures create an eerie juxtaposition with the more casual snake street art. The sculptures are real art on location where the film was shot, but their classical style further emphasizes the ways da Silveira uses the Medusa myth and beauty standards to expose not only sexism but also the particular ways in which Western colonialism impacts the young women in this film. Mari is shown compulsively straightening her hair until she finds Melissa, at which point she doesn’t grow snakes on her head but instead unleashes her natural curls and finds sexual empowerment.
In the park, the victim escapes the young women’s attack after slashing Mari’s face with a broken bottle. The scene of Mari’s injury is tied to a shot of a sculpture in which a mountain lion attacks a man. As a result of the wound, Mari is pitied by the other women and fired from her job. After Mari experiences her own injuries, she becomes fixated on tracking down the missing Melissa to capture a picture for social media.
Meanwhile, Michele continues to try to pull her friend back together. Michele uses Mari as a model for a video for her YouTube channel on how to cover up scars and bruises. Da Silveira says that during research for the film she found that ultra right wing communities in Brazil don't necessarily tout the kind of modesty we would expect, but rather emulate “this idea of the woman from the fifties that has to be ready and pretty for the man.” In her tutorial, Michele explains the need to cover up red and purple with green, like the vivid colors of the film. The film brilliantly weaves its aesthetic and its narrative together. Mari’s new injury (from her encounter with Melissa) magically disappears under Michele’s skilled touch.
But when Mari gets angry and walks off set, Michele sits in her place and begins to swab off her own makeup, slowly revealing a plum-colored bruise around her eye. So far, we haven’t liked Michele much, but in this moment, we realize we have judged her in exactly the way the film is warning women not to judge each other.
At multiple points during the over-two-hour movie, I think it’s ending, but it keeps going. Without rambling on like that, I don’t think its full hypnotic effect would have taken over. This is a film that takes the time to exalt in itself.
It takes time to linger in choir songs. It begins with an erotic dance number shot in lurid green and red lighting. It allows its protagonist to stand in front of a poster of snakes, observing. Art is about observation and this film is an observation of the growing conservatism da Silveira witnessed in Brazil. This film will not transform you; it will not transport you. It is about observation and about being completely and utterly yourself, completely here.
Outside the theater where I saw Medusa, on one of the hottest days of the summer, I can’t shake the trance this film has put me into. It’s exciting to experience the rare film that can so deeply ingrain itself in your life. The city around me feels like it’s full of outtakes and bonus features for Medusa. I pass two books sitting on the edge of a brownstone’s terrace, Uncommon Cures for Women, two copies. The multiple interpretations of that title are hard not to laugh at. A milky white foam pours down the street and swirls into a puddle at the curb, like the film’s shots of green face mask paste, red blood, and cakey orange foundation swirling down the sink drain (another example of a meditative punctuation device in the film). On a corner in the West Village, two ponies stand in front of a storefront, the windows plastered with posters advertising HBO’s Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin, which harkens back to Medusa’s Eve-inspired snake posters. I’m told to kneel between the ponies and take a selfie—an action many women find emblematic of all their twenty-first-century insecurities—“or else no one will believe you,” a phrase many women are all too familiar with.