August 5, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Anita Rocha da Silveira
Portuguese with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Brazil, the dramatic film “Medusa” features a cast of white, black and Latino Brazilian characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A young woman is part of an eight-woman group of ultra-religious conservatives, who are bullying vigilantes attacking other young women at night, but her life is upended after she becomes physically scarred when one of the victims fights back.
Culture Audience: “Medusa” will appeal primarily to people interested in an artsy movie that has a lot of symbolism and messaging about religious fanaticism, misogyny and rebellion against society oppressions that are mainly designed to control and punish women.
Stylish but often slow-moving, the haunting drama “Medusa” effectively uses dream-like imagery to depict the damage of misogynistic bullying and the rebellion against this type of oppression. It’s a story that examines physical and psychological violence with unflinching clarity, but it’s presented in a tone that blurs the lines between satire and horror. With a total running time of a little more than two hours, “Medusa” didn’t need to be this long to get its messages across as well as it does. About 30 minutes could’ve been edited out of the movie, and it would still have a similar impact. However, what’s in “Medusa” is enough to resonate with viewers who have the patience to absorb everything as the story unfolds.
Written and directed by Anita Rocha da Silveira, “Medusa” is set in an unnamed city in Brazil in the early 2020s, but the movie’s themes are timeless and universal. The protagonist of “Medusa” is a young woman named Mariana (played by Mari Oliveira, also known as Mariana Oliveira), who undergoes a transformation in more ways than one. People who are familiar with Greek mythology and the story of Medusa (a woman who was cursed with a face that turned people to stone) will be more likely to understand the symbolism in this movie. Before its release in cinemas, “Medusa” made the rounds at several film festivals, including the 2021 Cannes Film Festival (where the movie had its world premiere) and the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.
In the beginning of “Medusa,” Mariana (who is in her late teens or early 20s) is shown as part of a group of eight other young women who are about the same age. They’re all wearing identical white masks and acting like roaming predators at night on a deserted city street. (This scenario will be shown multiple times in the movie.) Who are these women hunting? Their targets are other young women whom these bullies have judged to be “sinful,” usually for sexual reasons.
And when these attackers find their target, they viciously assault her and call her derogatory names. After their victim is attacked into submission, they force her to make statement on video where she repents for her sins and says will give herself over to Jesus or God. This gang of religious fanatics will then upload these videos anonymously on social media, and later gloat over this violent abuse and get excited if the videos “go viral” with the public.
When they aren’t being masked marauders, these eight women present themselves as virtuous and moral to the people around them. They are also in a Christian singing group called Michele and the Treasures of the Lord. Their leader Michele (played by Lara Tremouroux) is the most fanatical of them all. She has very stringent ideas of how women should look and act, if they are to be considered “pure.” Michele considers herself to be a “Christian influencer” on social media, so she posts beauty tutorial videos instructing Christian women on how they should look. Mariana is Michele’s closest and most-trusted friend in the group.
Michele and the Treasures of the Lord regularly appear on a Christian TV show hosted by a televangelist named Pastor Guilherme (played by Thiago Fragoso), who has a “fire and brimstone” approach to preaching about religion. “Medusa” certainly drives home the point about how televangelism is a male-dominated field in real life, where any woman who succeeds as a televangelist usually has to do so by being married to a male televangelist or other male religious leader. That’s not to say that all religious or Christian people believe women are always inferior to men, but many extremely religious fundamentalists (such as the ones depicted in “Medusa”) believe that women should always be subservient to men.
Mariana works as an assistant in a beauty clinic that offers plastic surgery. Her boss Dr. Arnaldo (played by Márcio Mariante) has very specific ideas of how Mariana should look as his employee, and she complies with those beauty standards. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, “Medusa” points out this real-life fact: Plastic surgery is a field where men (who are the majority of plastic surgeons) financially profit the most, and its financial boom parallels the rise of social media, as more people (usually women) feel pressure to look a certain way. Women are the majority of people who get elective plastic surgery, usually so they can look more attractive, according to beauty ideals dictated by men.
One night, Michele and the Treasures of the Lord go on another brutal attack. When Mariana corners the victim, the victim fights back in self-defense, deeply cuts the left side of Mariana’s face with a broken bottle, and then is able to escape by running away. Even though Mariana can mostly cover up her facial scar with makeup, the scar is still visible to anyone who sees Mariana’s face up close. Dr. Arnaldo tells Mariana that her scar is “frightening” to his patients, so he fires her.
Mariana also gets some backlash from the other members of Michele and the Treasures of the Lord, because she is partially blamed for letting the victim escape. Feeling like an inferior misfit, Mariana gets a job at a ramshackle hospital, where all of the patients she’s required to look after are in a coma and are placed in one large room. It looks more like a war zone hospital than a regular hospital.
One of Mariana’s co-workers at the hospital is a young man named Lucas (played by Felipe Frazão), who’s in his early-to-mid 20s. Mariana and Lucas become close and develop a romantic attraction to each other. Because of Mariana’s religious beliefs, she has been taught that people (especially women) are not supposed to have sex outside of marriage. Mariana’s facial scar and the way people treat her because of it have altered her views of the world, so the last two-thirds of “Medusa” are about her metamorphosis and spiritual reckoning.
“Medusa” has a few subplots that work better for the movie than other subplots. One of the better subplots runs parallel to the storyline of Michele and the Treasures of the Lord, by having a depiction of a religious paramilitary group of young men called the Watchmen of Sion, who also consider themselves to be vigilantes. “Medusa” has several scenes of this fanatical group doing physical exercises and drills together. Watchmen of Sion also patrol the streets, looking for young men to harass and place under citizens’ arrest, usually for drug possession or being out past curfew.
Observant viewers will notice that in “Medusa,” the male vigilantes commit violence with no masks or other disguises. It’s in direct contrast to Michele and the Treasures of the Lord, who cover their faces with masks, as if to say that it’s more shameful for women to commit this type of violence. And in “Medusa,” only the women are “persecuted” for sexual reasons, while the men who have sex aren’t shamed for it. This double standard isn’t exaggerated for a movie, because there are plenty of real-life examples of how this double standard exists in many societies.
Michele and the Treasures of the Lord and the Watchmen of Sion sometimes have social gatherings where it’s obvious that members of these two like-minded groups expect to couple up with each other and to potentially find their future spouses. Because they don’t believe in sex outside of marriage, any romances that develop are supposed to be chaste. Not surprisingly, Michele’s boyfriend in Watchmen of Sion is the group’s leader named Jonathan (played by João Oliveira), who acts like a stereotypically aggressive “alpha male.”
Another intriguing subplot involves the mystery of a young actress named Melissa Garcia (played by Bruna Linzmeyer), who was attacked by unidentified assailants for being a promiscuous “party girl.” After her attack left her physically scarred, Melissa became so distraught, she set her face on fire. And then, she disappeared. Mariana and Michele have been following this missing-person case, but Mariana is more obsessed with it than Michele is. It’s hinted that Michele and the Treasures of the Lord were the ones who attacked Melissa.
An unnecessary subplot in “Medusa” is about Mariana’s younger cousin Clarissa (played by Bruna G.), who’s about 13 or 14 years old. Clarissa has been sent to live with Mariana’s family, who live in a safer area than the area where Clarissa’s family lives. It’s mentioned that Clarissa’s family wants her to go to a good Christian school and find a nice guy to marry.
At first, Clarissa is upset with this decision for her to relocate, because she misses being with her parents, siblings and friends. Mariana eventually becomes somewhat of a mentor to Clarissa, who spends some time with Michele and the Treasures of the Lord. It should come as no surprise that impressionable Clarissa becomes indoctrinated into the same beliefs. However, “Medusa” spends so little time developing Clarissa’s character, this subplot didn’t need to be in the movie.
Although there isn’t a bad performance in “Medusa,” the movie is hit and miss when it comes to development of the supporting characters. Mariana, Michele and a feisty woman named Karen (played by Joana Medeiros) are the only members of Michele and the Treasures of the Lord who are given distinct personalities. People watching the movie won’t really get a sense of who the other five members of the group really are.
The same lack of character development exists for the Watchers of Sion, who are all generic characters except for Jonathan. Even though Mariana lives with her family, these family members are shown briefly in the movie and have no real bearing on the plot. And except for Lucas, all of the people whom Mariana works with are entirely one-dimensional.
However, what “Medusa” does well is show how oppression can stifle the soul, unless someone has the strength to overcome it. One character in the movie shows suicidal or self-harm tendencies as an example of how this oppression takes a toll on this person. “Medusa” also skewers religious hypocrisy by showing that people who preach at and persecute others for so-called “sexual sins” are sometimes the ones who engage in these “sins” the most.
Two of the more outstanding traits in “Medusa” are the movie’s cinematography and sound design. The scenes with Michele and the Treasures of the Lord are bathed in pink hues and other pastel lighting, as if to present them in a ultra-feminine heightened sense of reality. In scenes depicting more morally ambiguous occurrences, the lighting is darker, sometimes in blue and green tints that glow.
A stunning scene at the end of the film is an eruption of pent-up emotions that’s the equivalent of an aural volcano. Rather than being a feminist film that pretends to have all the answers, the strength of “Medusa” is in simply acknowledging that oppression that looks like it’s only targeting some women is really a war against all women. And not everyone is going to just stand by and do nothing about it.
Music Box Films released “Medusa” in select U.S. cinemas on July 29, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on September 13, 2022.