One of the most exciting things about Brazil’s versatile and colorful culture is how art, sport, dance, music and other disciplines seem to all melt together in the most electrifying fashion. This is what visual artist and filmmaker Gabriel Mascaro’s Boi Neon (Neon Bull) so accurately captures in his follow-up to the beautiful and meditative Ventos de Agosto (August Winds). Mascaro’s latest drama uncovers sexuality in all its bluntness in unexpected places.
The film takes place in rural Brazil, where handsome, working-class Iremar works at the local vaquejada, (Brazil’s own version of a rodeo) where ‘cowboys’ overpower bulls by pulling their tails, making them collapse. While it might be a bit hard to watch how the men treat these animals, there’s a strong connection between these two species blurring the lines between animal and human. Iremar is in charge of sanding the bull’s tails but in his free time, he dreams of designing exotic clothes for women. His muse is Galega, an exotic dancer and a single mom who along with her daughter, Cacá, lives near the ranch where Iremar works.
While the film’s visually lush and subtle photography is one of its most satisfying feats, the film also places importance on other sensory responses such as scent. Taboos like excrement and semen are not concealed but rather celebrated as natural elements in a world where beauty and tenderness emerge unannounced. As sensual as it may be, sex is never exploited or glamorized in Neon Bull, but is instead portrayed candidly and naturally. For Iremar however, the body is not sexually desired—he sees it more as his canvas. This is particularly obvious in a scene where Iremar picks up his co-worker’s porn magazine to draw designs on the nude models. That is not to say that Iremar’s sexuality is ignored in the film—in one of the most extraordinarily beautiful scenes, he has sex with a pregnant perfume saleswoman in a garment factory (a perfect combination of circumstances for Iremar). Mascaro explicitly portrays the two prominent female characters as mothers, exploring their sexuality in tandem with their maternal roles—something that is often overlooked or avoided in our culture.
As low-key as the narrative might seem, Neon Bull manages to bewilder us by democratizing sex and beauty, providing the opportunity for the audience to place its perspective in someone like Iremar. In the film, all that is both tasteless and luscious harmoniously contradicts each other and converge at the same time, corresponding perhaps to Brazil’s strongest and most powerful cultural trait.
Now playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. A Kino Lorber release.