In the universe of “Medusa” by Anita Rocha da Silveira, everything is heightened. Each room is saturated with color, dripping with neon; each public moment is calibrated to present a polished image; each prayer is pronounced with passion then sung in pop songs on a church stage; and modern life is a minefield of devil-wielding temptations. It is, at least, according to the film’s main characters, who belong to a sisterhood of pious young women determined to resist the corruption that surrounds them, eschewing sex and independence as they strive to achieve divine perfection. However, their activities are not limited to singing, praying and creating optimistic vlogs on “how to take a selfie for the glory of God”.
As audiences see in the opening moments of the film, which screened at the Boston Underground Film Festival last week, their orthodoxy has a darker side. At night, they become a roving squad of violent vigilantes, donning masks to track down women whose behavior they deem inappropriate, beat them and film them pledging allegiance to God. Audiences first encounter them in their masked crowd, stalking a young woman on the street as something out of a “Mean Girls”/”The Purge” crossover special. As the film progresses, devoted vigilante Mari (Mari Oliveira) begins to question the teachings of the church and her sisters, especially leader Michele, after she is injured during a fight with a victim and fired from his job. Embarking on a career as an intensive care nurse, Mari sets out to track down disgraced celebrity Melissa, who was disfigured years before by the original vigilante girl squad. As Mari attempts to track her down and photograph her, she delves into the haunted, hallucinatory world of an end-of-life hospital and faces unexpected temptations that cause her to question her faith.
The Vigilante Squad’s central premise, which could easily come across as whimsical or heavy-handed in its depiction of little teenagers running amok, is emotionally executed and unpredictably developed. Rather than satirizing its main characters as ridiculous caricatures, Silveira leans into the insidious sincerity of their mission and the brilliant aesthetic behind them, introducing the story in a hyper-stylized ’80s palette that blends into a lush, organic green color palette in the film. second half, when Mari explores the dilapidated hospital where she works. In the film’s first half, which focuses primarily on Mari and the girls she patrols the streets with, Silveira’s thrilling chase sequences, Oliviera’s nuanced performance, and João Atala’s riveting cinematography manage to ground the violence. nonsense of Mari’s girl gang in a twisted film. and believable reality, emphasizing the relatable humanity of the film’s characters. In the second half, however, the focus shifts to Mari’s work in the hospital and the fractured politics of her church, and the film’s editing and score heighten the tension of otherwise everyday moments, finding the horror in the banal. In one unusual scene, Mari’s hospital is hit by a blackout, throwing the cavernous rooms into intermittent darkness as the dim generator lights flash. As Mari and her colleagues check the patients’ machines, shadows flooding around them, their routine activity becomes frightening.
Silveira’s antiheroes are both repulsive and sympathetic, appearing not as caricatures or imbeciles but as young complexes seduced and ultimately alienated by an ultra-conservative religious movement. Through careful narrative and visual incorporation, Silveira shows how the influence of the church is enhanced and assured by its groups of male vigilantes, who show their strength in contests of masculinity in an attempt to woo young women of the church and possibly to marry one. Where similar tales of feminist liberation like “The Handmaid’s Tale” present violent patriarchy as a dystopian threat rather than a specifically weaponized historical reality against black and brown women, “Medusa” is firmly contextualized within its current and historical context, showing how community ties to the church (such as the religious foundation of Mari’s boarding house) maintain antiquated gender roles and influences.
Silveira’s depiction of the heavily supervised joint activities of young church members – from speed dating events to men’s physical workouts, which girls observe – is fraught with repressive expectations, trapping young women in the story of Silveira in a politely misogynistic and terrifying old-fashioned story. system. When they finally rebel – in a striking last-act sequence – it’s the film’s most over-the-top moment (even eliciting audience laughter) and a token sigh of relief, allowing characters and viewers a cathartic experience that doesn’t ends not where it begins – violently – but somewhere new, outside of the cycle of retaliation and rage that has propelled the plot so far.
Through the interplay of these elements, “Medusa” offers a nuanced vision of religious orthodoxy, patriarchy and sexual liberation, which is especially relevant at a time when women are being drawn into anti-feminist movements like the Internet phenomenon “tradwife” under the guise of empowerment and self-respect. Silveira treats the patriarchal underpinnings of the misogynistic traditions of his fictional community with the seriousness they deserve, using the horror format to highlight the connection between the oppressive system and the violence inherent in its application (from domestic violence to assault by a vigilante). Yet Silveira handles these subjects with deft humanity and understated precision, resulting in a film that’s part gripping horror thriller, part visual art, and part resonant social commentary.
—Editor Harper R. Oreck can be reached at [email protected]