'Neon Bull' ('Boi Neon'): Venice Review

Neon Bull Still - H 2015
Courtesy Biennale di Venezia
A fascination exploration of body and gender norms make up for a lack of narrative.

Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro's follow-up to his well-received 'August Winds' stars Juliano Cazarré as a cowpoke who loves to make dresses in his spare time.

A cowhand working at Brazil’s vaquejada rodeos spends all his spare time dreaming up sexy get-ups for a truck-driving female colleague who moonlights as an exotic dancer in Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull (Boi neon), the director’s follow-up to his acclaimed fiction feature debut August Winds. Instead of a straightforward narrative arc for the small cast of characters, the film -- gorgeously shot and framed by Cemetery of Splendor cinematographer Diego Garcia -- combines a documentary-like look at their everyday lives with a fascinating if not entirely clear-cut exploration of body and gender issues. Although not as immediately sexy and seductive as Winds, even if it does feature nudity and erect members of both the human and equine species, this Bull has nonetheless been taken by the horns by the Venice Horizons sidebar and Toronto’s new Platform competition, which should help further cement Mascaro’s reputation as a talent to watch.

The broad-chested and darkly handsome Iremar (Juliano Cazarré) travels from fair to fair with a group of bulls that are used in vaquejada rodeos in the Brazilian Northeast, during which two men on horseback ride alongside a galloping bull and one of them has to use the animal’s tail to try and bring it to the ground. Iremar preps the bulls and releases them into the arena together with the corpulent and crude (Carlos Pessoa), in every way the muscular and more sophisticated Iremar’s opposite. The unlikely duo and the animals are driven everywhere in a rickety truck by mixed-race, peroxide blonde Galega (Maeve Jinkings), whose young but streetwise daughter, Cacá (Aline Santana), accompanies them on the road.

Besides the fact that Cacá longs for a father she’s never met, there’s not much else in terms of backstory for any of the characters, so it’s unclear how the trio know each other or what the particulars of their operation are. There's not even a sense of what their dreams might be, with the film simply concentration on the present, where the characters go about their daily business, traveling through the countryside with their animals from event to event. 

They barely scrape by, sleeping in a couple of hammocks in the back of their vehicle and reduced to doing things on the cheap, as illustrated in one of the most film’s most surprising sequences, which at first stuns and then delivers the film’s only belly laugh. It involves Iremar bribing a busty Spanish-speaking friend to let him and into a high-end auction of thoroughbreds, where they sneak into the stables and Iremar then uses his hands to try and wring some high-quality horse sperm from a live animal. The way the entire sequence is shot and framed suggests Mascaro’s utter ease working with animals -- his background is in documentary filmmaking -- and underlines his understanding of how to frame an action for maximum impact at all stages of the scene.

Despite the conspicuous lack of specifics, Mascaro manages to let the audience become invested in these itinerant characters, especially when it emerges that not everyone conforms to strict gender norms, which makes them complex and fascinating characters rather than rural clichés. Galega’s daytime duties as the company’s driver and car mechanic are thus supplemented by a nocturnal transformation into an scantily clad exotic dancer, hiding underneath a horse mask, while Iremar, a stallion among the bulls, loves to dive into local fabric stores so he can buy the materials he needs to sew Galega ever more intricate yet revealing outfits. Even new arrival Junior (Vinicius de Oliveira) is in touch with his feminine side, spending more time on his own long locks than on the bulls' vital tails.

All this is presented as an organic and non-negotiable part of who these people are, with virtually no one commenting on their odd choices or questioning their sexuality, virility or femininity. As the film states with perhaps a tad too much insistence, these characters are full-blooded heterosexuals that all get a full-blown sex scene in the film’s second half to prove it, with Iremar's precision lovemaking on the cutting table of one of the region's garment factories a certain character highlight, since the place must have him at least as excited as the woman he's actually mounting. And as in August Winds, the expression of sexual urges is presented as an entirely natural occurrence.

Together with the film’s often more indirect meditation on bodies and the way they are used, both in the animal world and in the human one, what thus emerges is a fascinating portrait of a society in which gender and body norms are much less rigid than one would expect. That said, this is about as precise a summation of the film’s ideas as possible, with the themes less markedly pronounced than in Winds, which explored life and death and love and decay and managed to connect the landscapes and weather conditions directly to the film's themes, which is much harder to do here. 

Though the director’s working with a full cast of professional actors for the first time, the film’s documentary illusion remains largely intact, with Cazarré (Elite Squad) and Jinkings (Neighboring Sounds) fully inhabiting their roles. The gorgeous widescreen cinematography by Mexican cinematographer Garcia, with its slightly matte finish, captures the landscapes and the characters in it with precision, often placing the subjects at the center of the frame but not afraid to pull back to drink in the wider environment, such as in a semi-surreal early shot in which Iremar wades into the mud, which is covered with colored bits of paper after the end of a fair, to collect pieces of a discarded mannequin he could use to test out his future creations.

Production companies: Desvia Producoes, Malbicho Cine, Viking Film

Cast: Juliano Cazarré, Aline Santana, Carlos Pessoa, Maeve Jinkings, Vinicius de Oliveira, Josinaldo Alves, Samya de Lavor

Director: Gabriel Mascaro

Screenplay: Gabriel Mascaro, Marcelo Gomes, Cesar Turim, Daniel Bandeira

Producer: Rachel Ellis

Executive producers: Rachel Ellis, Sandino Saravia, Marleen Slot

Director of photography: Diego Garcia

Production designer: Livia de Melo

Costume designer: Flora Rabello

Editors: Fernando Epstein, Eduardo Serrano

Sales: Memento


No rating, 101 minutes