In “Medusa,” the latest film from Brazilian director Anita Rocha da Silveira, the main character and a gang of her female friends don creepy white masks to attack other women in the street whom they deem to be “promiscuous.”
Silveira draws amply from both fictional and real tales of women-on-women violence to portray a snake pit society where religion, toxic masculinity and right-wing politics intertwine in an all-too-familiar fashion.
“Medusa” invokes the most famous depiction of the Gorgon: the Caravaggio painting in which she is emitting a deathly scream, blood spurting from her severed head. However, Medusa is not “scared or terrified,” according to Silveira, but rather “pissed.”
Silveira’s film is about that scream.
“For me, it represents releasing this anger that women have been putting aside for years, for generations. We can release this anger that we have to keep inside because you’re told you can’t speak out loud, you can’t be crazy, you have to be this controlled woman that speaks in a low voice and doesn’t lose control,” she says. “I can be perceived as loud, as crazy sometimes, but that’s fine with me.”
Variety caught up with Silveira ahead of the “Medusa” premiere at the Cannes Film Festival to discuss her inspirations, her bold choices and her hopes for the film beyond the festival.
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What inspired you to make a film in which gender, politics and religion are so clearly coiled?
I started writing “Medusa” in 2015, way before Bolsonaro was elected, even before the impeachment (of Dilma Rousseff). But in Brazil we could feel a conservative rise since 2013. I started to see young people on social media and on YouTube developing a very conservative point of view. I started to follow a girl, she was an upper middle class journalist, and the theme of her channel was “I fight for the end of feminism.” She was saying that women should be submissive to men, and this was a girl from the city who was very pretty and articulate. Then I was also struck by reading news articles about girls ganging up to beat up another girl. There were a lot of these episodes happening in Brazil, and also in Argentina and Chile.
What led these girls to commit acts of violence?
They would beat up one girl specifically and the reason was because she has too many likes, she’s flirting with my boyfriend, she’s too pretty, she shows her body too much, she’s promiscuous. They would beat her up and make the girl ugly, cut her face and cut her hair with scissors. Similar episodes were happening in cities across Brazil, and it reminded me of the myth of Medusa. Initially, Medusa was a very pretty maiden working in Athena’s temple, and in one version of the myth she had sex with Poseidon. Others interpret that she was raped, but she lost her purity and because of that, Athena transformed her into this ugly creature who could transform others to stone. She was punished for the loss of her purity.
I suppose that’s what these girl gangs thought they were doing.
Exactly. And then I started to think about how machismo, how sexism is injected into the structure of our society. It’s a myth from, two or three thousand years ago and it’s about a woman punishing another woman. Yet still today we can find women trying to control other women. Sometimes we can be labeled as hysterical, as crazy very easily. We have to control our bodies, what we eat more than men. A woman’s sexuality is much more controlled than a man’s. Their loss of virginity is scrutinized. The main theme of “Medusa” for me is control and the lack of control, being able to lose control.
How did you prepare Mari Oliveira and the other actors to build this poisonous girls’ clique?
We did a lot of research together and one of the first things we started to rehearse was the choir scenes. I think singing together and feeling those songs was a great starting point to their relationships. It helped them have this group, unity feeling. We started rehearsing around three months before shooting. We would meet three mornings or afternoons a week and build these girls together. I think COVID may have helped a little because these girls are in a bubble and they’re very nervous about what can burst this bubble. During the 2018 election, there was a lot of fake news in WhatsApp groups, and a part of the society believed it and started to be afraid about what was out there. The craziest one was that the Workers’ Party was going to force kids from two to six years old to be gay, and that they were forcing kids to be transsexual. Another one was that the party was giving bottles in the shape of penises to kids. It was this kind of crazy bullshit that’s totally unbelievable, but people believed it and were very afraid for no reason.
The film is highly stylized and uses bold colors throughout. What inspirations did you draw from for those decisions?
My biggest inspiration for this film was Dario Argento. I even mimic the dialogue from one of the scenes in “Suspiria.” I’m really in love with his 70s style of making films. The colors are out there, he’s not afraid of using contrasts either. I think today, maybe people are afraid to distance themselves from more realistic photography, and for me it was important to play with colors and have colors that mean something. I would also say “Carrie” was an inspiration, and I tried to emulate David Lynch in the way he flirts between genres. When I was making “Medusa,” everyone would ask what’s the genre? It’s horror, but not so much horror, and when I think of his films it’s hard to say exactly. Sometimes you don’t have to be in a genre box.
I would say “Medusa” is also part musical, some of the costumes and characters reminded me of “Grease.”
Yes! I was thinking more “All That Jazz,” but thank you for realizing that. “Medusa” has horror parts, musical parts, parts that are even comedy. I like to go between and play with genres. I like to have horror scenes with some humor in them, scenes which don’t take themselves too seriously.
What are your hopes for the film beyond Cannes?
I really hope the film can travel a lot because I think a lot of people can relate to it. It talks about Brazil, but it also talks about this ultra-right movement which has happened across the globe. Right wing people can sometimes be very appealing to the youth who maybe don’t get more information from newspapers or go to some YouTube video that takes them to another video. Suddenly, they’re on an ultra-right page with someone that’s very charismatic and that speaks in a very cool way, but is saying things that can be racist, that can be homophobic, that can be sexist, but that can impress a young mind. I also think there’s a feminist point of view to the film that’s important. Maybe part of the audience won’t like that, but I wanted to make a film about girls rediscovering themselves and trying to at some point lose control and be the owners of their own bodies.
What are you working on next?
I’m starting to develop another feature where the main theme is memory, or lack of it. It relates to Brazilian politics as well. Thinking back to the military regime in Brazil, the people from the military were all forgiven, there was no judgement for them. Now people are saying no-one was tortured, no-one was killed, the left is making that up. But the film is in very early steps and it’s going to be hard. “Medusa” was financed before the last Presidential election and we are still fighting to get a last part of the money. The way it used to work in Brazil was with the government as a close partner. So now, I have to re-think a way to get the financing together, I have to stand back and find news ways to consider making films in Brazil. I might have to go to a VOD company or TV company, or maybe it’s time to try the U.S. Maybe with next year’s elections, things can start going back to the way they were, people can start making films with more freedom again.