Brazilian writer-director Anita Rocha de Silveira made a striking feature debut six years ago with “Kill Me Please,” a uniquely antic yet unnerving cocktail of adolescent sexual awakening, giallo thriller elements and art-house ambiguity. Its boldness extends to the slightly bigger canvas and slightly older heroines in “Medusa.” Again offering a queasily satirical take on matters of sex and violence among emotionally flammable youth, this sophomore effort adds a more explicit sociopolitical critique.
The coiled-spring tension that kept “Please” taut despite its diffuse storytelling goes somewhat slack here, making for a less successful whole. Still, the audacity of de Silveira’s concept — in which enrollees at an upscale Christian college indulge in secret, moralizing vigilante mayhem — and her deliberately over-the-top aesthetic render “Medusa” a compelling mixed bag. It may miss the bull’s-eye, but not for lack of intriguing ideas or style.
Fans of the earlier film will immediately feel at home in a logical progression of its content, as the first few minutes here present girl-mob viciousness, then an equally bizarre musical number. Eight young women in eerie doll-like masks chase another woman through nocturnal streets, yelling “Slut! Jezebel! We’ll nail you to the cross!” They beat her, then film her coerced vow to “become a devoted, virtuous woman, submissive to the Lord.” Cut to a female octet, now clad in virginal white chiffon with beatifically exposed faces, singing a religious pop song onstage at institution The Holy Messiah. When that performance ends, succeeded by the latest sermon/harangue from Pastor Guilherme (Thiago Fragoso), Michele and the Treasures of the Lord glance excitedly at their phones — the prior night’s beatdown video has already gotten 10,000 likes.
It’s a rather scary version of “Christian charity,” then, that wide-eyed Clarissa (Bruna G) suddenly finds herself in, having been “rescued” by relatives from a less elevated living situation. She is welcomed into the home of cousin Mariana (Mari Oliveira), who happeans to be BFF and second-in-command to queen bee Michele (Lara Tremouroux). Their school social sphere is, really, the stereotypical one of privileged princesses and jocks bullying everyone else. Only here the mean girls moonlight as assaulters of peers deemed less-than-virtuous, while the boys seem to be in paramilitary training for some kind of reactionary revolution — all sanctified by Jesus, or so they believe.
Mariana is obsessed with Melissa Garcia (Bruna Linzmeyer), a local celebrity who vanished years ago after being horribly maimed for doing a nude scene in a movie, among other alleged sins. That fixation only increases when she herself is left facially scarred by a panicked woman fleeing the pious girl gang. Fired from her job at a plastic surgery clinic as a result, Mariana gets hired at a different kind of medical facility, where she suspects the elusive Melissa might be hiding — or comatose, like many patients there. She sparks with male nurse Lucas (Felipe Frazao). But he is not a class-appropriate object of desire, and in fact, any desire acted upon could potentially bring down the wrath of her masked sisterhood.
If “Kill Me Please” toyed with slasher conventions (while never quite delivering the standard gore or kill count), “Medusa” plays with the cinematic vocabulary of near-future sci-fi, with religion as its Big Brother. There’s no question de Silveira is addressing the rise of crypto-fascism thinly cloaked by moralizing, both in Brazil and beyond. It’s also increasingly clear that such overwhelmingly misogynist movements — the “boys” here make no secret of blaming women for their own lustful urges — are the gantlet her characters run toward a climactic, freeing expression of feminine (and feminist) rage.
But while the director’s prior effort was a seltzer bottle dangerously shaken just short of exploding, “Medusa” gets to the explosion minus sufficient cumulative tension. It’s long but underplotted, with only Mariana really developed as a character (Clarissa is more or less forgotten after her prominent introduction), and too little use made of subsidiary ones. There are cleverly outré individual sequences, as when Michele records a social-media instructional on “how take the perfect Christian selfie,” or the boys do a kind of interpretive-dance calisthenics routine in their camo pants. Yet larger thematic and story ideas meant to be ominous fail to gain much traction in the fragmented screenplay or slack pacing.
Where “Medusa” does exude confident purpose is in its design elements, which are intentionally garish — dominated by loud “gendered” neon colors (there is much pink and blue) that turn religious fanaticism into a tacky teen discotheque. Appropriately, the soundtrack is full of synthy oldies covers along with the occasional tongue-in-cheek plagiarism, like a “House of the Rising Sun” revised so the virgin girl group can sing lyrics such as “I shall be a modest and pretty housewife.” De Silveira often seems to be tipping hat to the original “Suspiria,” in dialogue, situational and aesthetic references alike. This time, however, it’s not the Devil in the details, but a warped version of his holy nemesis.
The actors are game, though this politicized, semi-surreal variation on “Heathers” ultimately offers most of them less defined characters to chew on than that more straightforward satire did. Not quite a sophomore slump, “Medusa” nonetheless suggests its director is just another project or two away from finding the perfect narrative vessel for her distinctive sensibility.