Two Girls One Cup was after all a Brazilian stunt if urban legend is anything to go by anymore. Not that I’ve tried, but apparently your gag reflex will instinctively kick in for the act to be attempted in full. So much for scat and skeet being just one vowel away? The reason I prefaced my thoughts on a film with a take on extreme fetishism is simple geography. But also as I’m complex as to have gone on occasional dives into peculiar rabbit holes I understand that in certain recesses of the world a vulgar brand of human behavior can exist and if not for our curious consumption here then obviously to score exhibition points anyhow. Russia and blue whale? Brazil and bestiality porn?
Normally the knock against foreign films among the boorish and uncultivated centers on the unappealing prospect of processing textual and cinematic cues at once. Luckily, a shift independent of taste or demand has mitigated that challenge with plenty of dramas employing long silences and a firmly established cinematic language that reduce subtitles to a manageable nuisance. Or is it independent of outside influence? It is precisely that such tendencies (obviously congruent with the changing views) have come to dictate what gets into film circuits that strips Neon Bull of the minuscule credibility it had in the first place, and mind you it is a meandering piece throughout.
But getting back to my point, it once seemed that wherever your kicks may lie there likely was a brand of localized cinema to accommodate them and Brazil in specific can elicit bouts of earnest attention like few others what with a notoriously lax attitude towards life and women. In particular nudity and the human body. Joie de vivre was coined in Français, yes, but it was decidedly perfected in Brazil. Add the enigmatic poster of Neon Bull and I genuinely thought I was in line for a piece of transgressive cinema.
Neon Bull is at times both funny and deliberate yet frustratingly obtuse to sustain anything close to an even engagement but there is logic behind its formless methods. In Iremar, or the Lusophone answer to Josh Brolin, the film has the closest inkling to a protagonist in a cast of a motley band of cattlemen bound not so much by affinity or kin as mutual benefit. Days of Heaven still rages on for some and survival is ever the reliable equalizer. Indeed, the unknown is hinted at briefly in explicit terms but elsewhere are the constant allusions to which. And that the bull in question is neither a beast nor a specific character for that matter is hardly a surprise once the hint is made, but in not having a clear-cut character to anchor itself it is a prerogative I won’t assail here. It clearly can cut both ways.
Animal cruelty aside, the rodeo show being the sole outward expression of the film’s pervasive, understated maladies, the center stage of Neon Bull is rather the infrastructure behind the scenes. The film opens with bulls stacked on top each other like dominoes with head under hind as if the bovine version of the human-centipede. The show itself involves two horse riders flanking a bull with the object of toppling it as all charge toward a line in the ring. In between gigs the goulash of grunts travels to shows, tends to the herd and conducts general upkeep. And the living conditions look barely sanitary to warrant approval from any board of health including the ones in Brazil.
Gabriel Mascaro somehow portrays this hopeless milieu in a cheerful if pragmatic light and part of that is achieved with a brand of crass humor and the occasional foray into surreal territory and a few moonlighting schemes. One fantastic bit involves a man riding on a horse into a dimly lit ring. Juxtaposed against proximity to the squalor however is the collage posters of horses advertising the venue replete with dot com insignia as if the bulls are to the horses what the caretakers are to the riders. Veiled in the mystique still more is how a nearby horse auction proves a constant lure for Iremar and Ze, the buffoonish partner, who sneak in to steal sperm from a coveted breed.
The slow pace reveals the ultimate efforts of the troupe toward financial betterment but only just. Galega the truck driver has a daughter who’s captivated by equines. With the help of Iremar who uses her to test the skimpy clothes he designs, Galega gets to do a bizarre horse-themed dance routine on the side for the rodeo attendees. Ze gets an unexpected promotion in a development so outrageously comic it couldn’t be justified as anything other than just due for a lifetime spent as the butt of jokes and having horse semen sprayed on the face. The film ends abruptly with Iremar, well on his way to a new job presumably, having sex with a security guard working the night shift at a clothing factory whom he’d met at the rodeo as she was… selling cologne on the side. If that’s how job interviews start in Brazil no wonder everyone’s moonlighting.
The director comes from a documentary line of wannabe filmmakers so someone put a stop to these lane-changing hacks. But in Diego García he has the illusion of a safety net to the tune of three times his cinematic output, and the ace cinematographer brings some balance though not in spades abundant enough to salvage the narrative mess. I counted two scenes when the indefinite stand-in for the jizz-drenched serf becomes a target of the leering side-eye with the expectation that it’ll erupt in either a brawl or a shouting match depending on the combination of genitalia involved. Junior was his name. When he’s flossing his braces in the truck on the way to a fairground Iremar gives him the first disapproving glare. The other one is when he irons his mane while Galega is sitting nearby curiously conversing with her daughter about straight versus curly hair.
The expected response from the old guard in both moments being, ahem, corralling the machismo of this intruder back into place when in reality Iremar is the one with the sewing machine and Galega with her toolbox, the vestige of a runaway lover. Despite the fact neither leaning is questionable but because of a long history of rigid roles in the medium everyone is supposed to suddenly ignore nuance and fall into the trap? Yes! Yes and it’s all okay because she wears g-strings and she’ll fuck the new handy man in revenge for unresolved tensions with Iremar. In subverting only gender norms for his film while playing up his country’s stereotypes, namely the disregard for “civilized” Western ideals namely animal and children’s welfare, the suspicions are obvious; it was strategic and calculated move that exposes Mascaro capitalizing on the social justice climate and whoring out his culture for exotic effect. And it is a brave proposition knowing his audience had the gatekeepers not gobbled his half-baked dreck with alarming glee.