Matheus Naechtergaele is a renowned Brazilian actor. He played the leading character in The Dog’s Will (Miguel Arraes, 2000), a widely-acclaimed comic and sharp denunciation of religious fanaticism in Brazil. The Dead Girl’s Feast is Naechtergaele’s powerful debut as a director, which draws religious themes similar to those in Arraes’s film, combined with deeply subversive Hitchcockian elements.
The Dead Girl’s Feast portrays the life in a small riverside town in the depths of the Amazon forest, where locals venerate Santinho (Daniel de Oliveira), a young man who allegedly inherited divine and healing powers from his mother (played by Cassia Kis). Legend has that she obtained such abilities after receiving the blood-stained, ragged dress of a missing girl from the mouth of a dog. The film culminates in the festivities of 20th anniversary of the event, when the dead girl is able to speak through Santinho’s mouth in front of the large admiring crowd. The film was inspired by a similar real event that Naechtergaele witnessed during the making of The Dog’s Will.
The film has remarkable similarities with Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960): it opens with the main character in their underwear after having forbidden sexual activity. Instead of Marion Crane having unmarried sex (a major taboo at the time in 1960), here we have Santinho having an incestuous embrace with his father (Jackson Antunes). In the last sequence of Psycho, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is in a prison cell as his mouth speaks for both himself and his mother, in an episode of split personality. In the end of The Dead Girl’s Feast, Santinho speaks for two people, himself and the girl, through his mouth in an episode of alleged possession.
There are more elements in common with Hitchcock’s masterpiece, including incest and cross-dressing. Both Santinho and Norman Bates are short-tempered, self-obsessed lunatics prone to violent outburts, at times camp and effeminate. Both characters impersonate their dead mother: Santinho through sex his father, and Bates through impersonation. The actors (Oliveira and Perkins) have similar facial features; Santinho even has Bate’s psychotic spark in his deep and black eyes,
Brazilian cinema has a tradition of anthropophagy, which was taken from a literary movement in the 1920s. It means that Brazilian filmmakers absorb/ eat international cultural tendencies and regurgitate them in an entirely new, Brazilian way. This is precisely what Naechtergaele did with Hitchcock’s Psycho, thereby transporting the Bates Motel to shabby houses in the remote jungle.
The Dead Girl’s Feast does not resemble Hitchcock in every way, however. Naechtergaele gave up suspense elements in favour of a more naturalistic and Brechtian Look. His cinematography is more reminiscent of Michael Ballhaus in Martha (RW Fassbinder, 1973) than of John L Russell and Hitchcock. In addition, several animals are killed, and the squealing of a dying pig can be heard several times throughout the film, rendering it uncomfortable and painful to watch.
Such dirty and subversive elements are a suitable backdrop to the absurdity of religious fanaticism. No incestuous act or slaughtering is less preposterous than the religious veneration of Santinho by his followers.
Naechtergale’s debut received wide critical acclaim and various prizes, including Best Film Award in Gramado, the largest film festival in Brazil. It remains to be seen whether Naechtergaele will continue to direct and eventually establish himself as the enfant terrible of Brazilian cinema. DMovies selected The Dead Girl’s Feast as one of “the dirtiest Brazilian films of the past 10 years”.