Sometimes you have to take the bull by the tail — which applies just as much to director Gabriel Mascaro’s seemingly backward approach to “Neon Bull” as it does to the bizarre Brazilian rodeo scene the film depicts, in which experienced riders do exactly that, flanking cattle from both sides and tugging them to the ground from behind. A time-honored tradition in the Brazilian northeast, “vaquejada” is arguably the region’s most macho sport (women aren’t allowed to participate), which makes Mascaro’s strategy of slyly challenging gender roles within this realm all the more intriguing. Premiering in Venice a mere year after his sultry, Locarno-launched “August Winds” marked him a talent to watch, “Neon Bull” similarly exudes hormones from every pore, sure to seduce many a festival with the helmer’s gift for frank sexuality and unforgettable imagery.
Not since Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz rutted in “Jamon Jamon” have meat and sex made such provocative bedfellows: Here, a red-lit exotic dancer takes the stage wearing horse-hoof boots and a full equine mask, two low-bred vaqueiros sneak into a livestock auction and hastily try to masturbate a prize stallion, and a fashion-obsessed cowhand screws a pregnant security guard on the cutting table of a local clothing factory — the closest he will ever get to fulfilling his dream of working there. Such vivid scenes, and dozens more like them, string together to make up what passes for narrative in “Neon Bull” — a film that’s far more interested in superficial visuals and deep political subtext than anything so conventional as story.
Making something exotic out of the vaqueiros’ mundane day-to-day duties, Mascaro luxuriates in their dust- and dung-covered world, practically worshipping the creatures he finds there — man and beast alike — in a way that might have delighted Leni Riefenstahl (not her Nazi propagandist side, but the body-worship queen who so gratuitously ogled the human form in “Olympia”). “Neon Bull” shares the German helmer’s fascination with all things muscular: The film’s opening shot depicts several white bulls squeezed into a narrow pen, one crushing another’s head beneath its leathery haunches.
Retaining the naturalistic sense of spontaneity from his pre-“August Winds” documentary oeuvre, Mascaro and Mexican d.p. Diego Garcia (who lensed Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Cemetery of Splendor”) demonstrate a masterful eye for composition. Selected at random, any given frame of the film might stand alone as powerfully as a Dutch genre painting (think Brueghel or Vermeer), communicating the very texture and smells of each environment — some so oppressive the nose wrinkles at the sight.
Although its focus drifts between characters, “Neon Bull’s” most frequent obsession is a studly vaqueiro named Iremar (Juliano Cazarre), whose job it is to chalk the bulls’ tails before they enter the arena. But Iremar’s true passion is fashion, which the film considers an odd preoccupation for a man, delighting in the image of the tough guy crouched over his sewing machine — as amusing to picture as NFL tackle Rosey Grier doing needlepoint — though in truth, most vaqueiros create their own outfits.
To accentuate the gender-role reversal, Iremar dedicates his spare time to designing fantasy costumes for Galega (Maeve Jinkings), a sexy dancer who travels along with their crew. As with so much else in the detail-lean screenplay (which Mascaro developed in collaboration with Marcelo Gomes, Cesar Turim and Daniel Bandeira), it’s hard to gauge the exact dynamic between Iremar and Galega, who treat one another almost like brother and sister. He’s clearly not the father of her precocious daughter Caca (Aline Santana), and yet, there’s clearly some sort of unexplored sexual frisson between the two — complicated when pot-bellied co-worker Ze (Carlos Pessoa) is replaced by long-haired new hire Junior (Vinicius de Oliveira), whose ladylike mane makes him a rival for Galega’s attention.
Whereas Mascaro worked with amateurs on “August Winds,” here he had to help pros unlearn their actorly ways and disappear into their characters. One can only imagine the casting calls for the various key roles, which demand that performers not only look adept at all manner of ranch work (from feed time to cattle branding) but also urinate, copulate and exfoliate on demand. Mascaro’s goal is to create a sort of non-sensational unanimity between such actions (although audiences are seldom as blase toward nudity as he intends for them to be), to the extent that late in the film, when lead actor Juliana Cazarre steps out for his morning piss, the routine is depicted as ambivalently as if a bull in pasture were doing the same thing.
“Neon Bull” keeps a cinematic distance at nearly all times, seldom moving in for closeups and allowing most scenes to play out in a single shot. Whether his subjects are shoveling manure or showering down afterward, Mascaro prefers to celebrate these figures in their physical entirety. In some cases, the scenes advance in a linear progression, while at other times, editors Fernando Epstein and Eduardo Serrano may as well have placed the footage anywhere. The trick is to free oneself from the expectations of story and enter backwards — tail-first, if you will — by the film’s themes, which concern a changing world where old traditions (like rodeo) are fading, and with it, certain ideas of masculinity.