Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing, 2012; The Look of Silence, 2014) claimed that “most films are bad until they get really beautiful”. He was discussing the process of “enlighting” a film at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The panel also included Werner Herzog (The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, 1974; Fitzcarraldo, 1982; Grizzly Man, 2005) who talked about the “discipline of storytelling”. Perhaps this is why it is difficult to engage with Neon Bull: the film is neither beautiful nor does it tell a story.
Mascaro examines the vaquejada, a countryside Brazilian sport, where cowboys (vaqueiros) on horseback pursue a bull and attempt to knock it over. Despite representing such a masculine universe, the main character Iremar (Juliano Cazarré) has a passion for fashion. His ambition is to design exotic clothing for women, in stark contrast to his manly occupation.
Neon Bull exposes the dark traits of everyday vaqueiro life often in rich and graphic detail, in the tradition of Naturalism (the Brazilian literary movement of the 19th century). It is extremely sensual and somewhat bizarre. There are long takes of cowboys pissing, Iremar is shown having sex with a pregnant woman, and even masturbating a horse to the point of ejaculation.
The characters in Neon Bull are defined by their race and environment, just like in Aluísio Azevedo’s novel ‘The Slum’. Their personality are a mere reflection of the surrounding nature. They behave instinctively. They are animals.
Neon Bull has a very strong sensorial appeal. It is both intriguing and repulsive, making your eyes whirl and your guts wrench. On the other hand, it will not make your brain think. The film has little to offer in terms of narrative and storytelling. It is very descriptive of everyday life of cowboys, without plot, antagonists, twists and climaxing, almost like the first films in the history of cinema, when the seventh art was still close to photography.
On the positive side, Mascaro reveals the hidden secrets and natural beauties of the Brazilian hinterlands to international audiences. It is raw cinema, devoid of metaphors and symbolism, a clear a window to a little-known side of Brazil.
Neon Bull premiered at the last Venice film festival, where it won the special jury prize of the Horizons sidebar. It was also presented at Toronto International Film Festival last year. Kino Lorber has acquired the film’s distribution rights in the USA. DMovies selected it as one of the 16 dirtiest Brazilian Movies of the past 10 years.