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Review: Gabriel Mascaro’s ‘Neon Bull’

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The chute opens in a darkened rodeo arena and a glowing fluorescent bull charges away. An obscure silhouette of a vaqueiro cowboy pursues it on horseback, reaching to bring it down by its tail. This stunning sequence is just one of a series of surreal encounters between bodies — both human and animal — that make up Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull (Boi neon).

Iremar’s (Juliano Cazarré) strong build, rugged looks and stoic demeanor signal him as one of the bulls of the film’s title. By day he herds, transports, feeds and sands the tails of the rodeo cattle before they are released to be run-down and tipped over for the crowds. But in his free time, he indulges neon ambitions aimed at high fashion. This ranch hand carefully combs the muddy landscape of dumping grounds near the region’s textile factories in search of stray pieces of quality fabrics and mannequins. At the rodeo, he collects fallen bits of hair from the bull tails that can be dyed and repurposed. The result is a bricolage yielding impressive articles of women’s erotic clothing. And his rodeo colleague, Galega (Maeve Jinkings) — who drives the truck hauling cattle and crew between events — dons his creations at night, adorned with elaborate horse masks and hooves, to perform exotic equestrian dances for male audiences.

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Remarkably, the contrasting masculine and feminine associations between Iremar’s job and his passion for couture entail very little gender trouble in the film. He completely disregards an episode of machista homosexual insult, and appears to have no interest in or even an ability to develop a psychological complex due to the disjunction between rodeo and fashion. He’s a neon bull. Deprived of a sexuality until the film’s unforgettable seven-minute climax, he is endowed, primarily, with a sensibility that transcends his surroundings. The magic of Mascaro’s film is that it allows the spectator glimpses of insight into Iremar’s manner of seeing the world where other frameworks and lenses would reveal only dust.

While not a narrative feature in any conventional sense, Neon Bull is full of rich micro-narratives that contribute to an overarching portrait of unique characters and beasts of burden. Moments of humor punctuate prolonged consideration of various bodies and their activities. Mascaro presents a form of surrealism that does not traffic in abstractions of the subconscious — though some of those associations are inevitable. Rather, it clings to the mundane and objective portrayal of the everyday lives of the vaquejada rodeo workers and their livestock in northeastern Brazil, while capturing the poetic edges of this reality through the cinematic operations of what Jean Epstein called photogénie. This is a realism accentuated by its surplus — that which eludes and exceeds the naked eye but can be captured by the camera — facilitated by digital technologies and a painstaking technique that allow for meticulously composed long takes propelled forward by precise camera movements.

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Mascaro’s formation as a documentary filmmaker bleeds through his auteur aesthetic. One might be easily convinced that he depicts the lives of real wranglers, were it not for the film’s stylized construction and lyric digressions. The line between documentary and fiction further blurs in the repeated use of the long take, and the incorporation of animals as central characters of the film and subjects of the camera’s gaze.

And its beasts are incorporated in the fully embodied sense of the term. Neon Bull frequently juxtaposes man and animal, and carnally displays both in light of their needs, functions and precarious relationships with other bodies and shifting terrains. Iremar’s trek through deep mud near the factories, the girl Cacá’s slip in the excrement that unfortunately resembles her name and the bulls’ tumbles in the sand reiterate the consanguinity between earth and flesh. Galega’s breach of the boundary between woman and horse is reversed at an equine auction where mares from prized bloodlines wear wigs of human hair and bear the names of European royalty. Stallions and men boast erections. Humans and horses breed. Bulls and their handlers are transported together in the back of the truck from rodeo to rodeo. While the animals are in a pen, the space of the humans forms a similar box right alongside of it.

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Humans and beasts share a primal bond as they occupy the land and the frame together. Mascaro thus internationalizes a strain of the French cinéma du corps as he weds it with the emerging art-house aesthetic of digital realism, crossing borders and species to create something extraordinary. Neon Bull is not to be missed.

Aaron Boalick (@FlixCritic) is a freelance film critic in New York City and Adjunct Faculty in the Film Division of Columbia University. 

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