Cannes 2021 review: Medusa (Anita Rocha da Silveira)

I once read that girls’ names starting with the letter ‘M’ are names of malicious women

Midway through Medusa these words are spoken by a supporting character, directed at the protagonist, who just so happens to be a young woman named Mariana, one of the many names mentioned by her prophetic peer. This only serves to complicate the already confusing life of the young woman, who has taken it upon herself to search for an elusive actress named Melissa who disappeared without a trace from their Brazilian neighbourhood many years ago, and who she believes met a grisly fate at the hands of a group of violent youths. This is the foundation for the film, an incredibly potent psychological horror by Anita Rocha da Silveira, who weaves together an absolutely unforgettable series of moments centred around Mariana’s search for a mysterious figure from her community’s cultural past as a way of atoning for her own misdeeds, suspecting that she is indirectly responsible for her disappearance. A film defined by unnatural movements and peculiar character motivations, Medusa is quite an achievement, flourishing into one of the most unconventionally spellbinding works to emerge from Brazil, a country that has been undergoing its own wave of ambitious cinematic offerings in recent years. Wickedly subversive and often intentionally absurd, this film defies expectations and rational thought, preventing even the most attentive viewer from ever being able to predict the path it is going to take us on.

Medusa is an indescribable film – the most accurate designation would be to refer to it as a psychological horror, since this is what Rocha da Silveira clearly designed it to be, at least on the surface. From the first moment, where the audience is confronted by the terrifying image of a young woman, her body contorted into unnatural poses, and her gaze firmly fixated on the viewer, we are immediately immersed into this nightmarish world. Taking place in neon-soaked neighbourhoods that resemble any metropolitan area, a place where reality is filtered through a surreal lens, and in which the laws of logic are suspended in favour of establishing an evocative, atmospheric glimpse into the human condition. Nothing is what it seems in Medusa, which only makes the mysteries at the film’s core all the more compelling. Everything is off-kilter, and supernatural elements interweave with the starkly authentic social drama. This situates this film right in the heart of a new wave of magical realist films emerging from South America, a continent that has mastered the art of merging hard-hitting social commentary with striking cultural traditions in the formation of some wonderfully abstract parables. It creates a hypnotic, mystifying voyage into the mind of a complex protagonist as she attempts to make sense of a world that has somehow descended into a grotesque version of itself.

Religion lies at the heart of Medusa, with the entire story being structured around the relationship between the protagonist and her faith. The film takes place in an interpretation of the world where the more traditional message of kindness and compassionate cries to ‘love thy neighbour’ have been replaced with violent, ruthless vengeance being thrust on those that don’t quite meet the stringent criteria set by the church. Any deviation from the ideal image of the principled Christian woman, based on conservative values, is seen as a perfectly appropriate reason to beat someone to within an inch of their life, with a group of self-enlisted protectors of the church targeting anyone they see as a threat to their strict way of life. This side of the story is a remarkably effective and extremely brutal indictment of puritanical hysteria and the tendency for some passionate believers to resort to extreme measures to defend their faith, even if it results in a gruesome crusade. This ultimately coalesces into Mariana’s journey, as she starts to discover that there is more to life than punishing those who go against archaic beliefs, which occurs as a result of her own burgeoning sexuality which she knows would put her in opposition with the group of other young women with whom she used to terrorize the moonlit streets of her city. She sets out on a journey to atone for her wrongdoings, showing contrition for her sins – but when she discovers that forgiveness is not as easily accessible as her fiercely religious upbringing would have her believe, she begins to fear for her own life in much the same ways that those victims she gleefully mocked did at the time of their intensely physical and mental calvary.

Daring, provocative and wildly inventive, there is nothing quite like Medusa – any film that starts with the image of a horde of masked vigilantes walking through the dimly-lit streets of working-class Brazil while Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Cities in the Dust plays is bound to be an unforgettable experience. The frequent oscillations between a touching coming-of-age drama about a young woman gradually nestling into adulthood and a work of brutal, socially mediated terror makes for an absolutely enthralling psychological thriller that is filled to the brim with imagery that evokes the darker side of human nature, all of it executed with razor-sharp precision by a genuinely gifted filmmaker (who also understands the immense effectiveness of a well-placed musical number). This is a bold work of unhinged artistry that weaves a harrowing sense of humour into the proceedings, the kind that is entirely bleak and is used as a tool to unsettle the audience through showing the absurdity of societal decay, rather than elicit laughter. The film deftly traverses numerous genres and emerges as an absolutely discordant, terrifying glimpse into contemporary society, while still finding time to be a sly satire on modern social media culture where the brutal wrath of the guardians of decency is celebrated through the perpetrators becoming viral sensations. The concept of social media being as powerful a force as fervent religious belief has never been better explored than in this disconcerting gem of a film whose brilliance is only matched by its unrestrained despair.