Marcelo Caetano’s feature debut, Corpo Elétrico (Body Electric), celebrates Brazil’s diversity in all its forms, starting with the sexual and racial heterogeneity of its population. Set in São Paulo, the film examines — with a joyous vibe — the exploring of one’s identity and sexuality through fashion and partying. A 23 years old, the protagonist Elias (Kelner Macêdo) works in a clothing factory as an assistant designer. As a gay man, he seems to keep a professional distance between his colleagues and his own discreet behaviour. After engaging in casual sex with his non-jealous boyfriend, Elias shares his vivid fantasies with other guys, such as a mall security guard and a new colleague from Guinea, Fernando (Welket Bungué). At first more restrained, the protagonist manifests his poignant sexuality as he receives the approval of work colleagues, a tolerant and diverse group.
Corpo Elétrico opens with Elias narrating a dream to his boyfriend after sex. It’s an interesting and direct approach, as director Caetano produces somewhat of an investigative interview; the protagonist faces the camera and it’s not clear who’s asking the questions. With little context for the characters, Corpo Elétrico follows the handsome Elias’ routine, which consists of meaningless sexual relationships and work sans judgemental remarks.
While Elias’ co-workers seem to have a hard time and put in extra hours, there is no depiction of the horrors associated with exploited, under-paid people with no rights. However, the pressure of fast-paced production is present, highlighting the lives of the tailors who only seem to have time to fulfill their basic needs. People from all over Brazil, of different ages and races, arrive in São Paulo to support their families and to make a life of their own. The film implies that Elias’ situation is unique — he doesn’t belong to the same social class as his colleagues, and he might not even need to work, since he was financially supported by his ex, an older gay man named Arthur. Director Caetano depicts the character of a free spirit, an open-minded individual who is truly interested in fashion and fabrics. The influence of Gabriel Mascaro’s Neon Bull is visible in terms of theme and approach, as Caetano worked as the assistant director. While Neon Bull depicts a rodeo worker’s illicit passion for fashion in a macho world, Corpo Elétrico is straight to the point and doesn’t challenge ideas of masculinity. While both movies converge into the world of trans shows and queer fashion, Caetano doesn’t show this community as prohibited — he focuses more on the fun. Elias seems to encourage his peers’ nocturnal escapes with booze and dancing; he exploits these events as an opportunity to embrace his true, queer self and to explore his limits and desires. However, it’s interesting to see how his passion for the shy Fernando never materialises into something sexual, even though the tension exists. Caetano beautifully plays with the distinction between lust and platonic desire, focusing on the possibility of a relationship between contrasting characters driven towards each other only by friendly curiosity.
With its lively cinematography, Corpo Elétrico contrasts the colourful and intense colours of the night scenes with the dull creams and greys of the work environment. There couldn’t be a clearer distinction between the professional and private, between appearances and essence — a fine line which Elias can afford to diminish, due to his privileged position as a superior to the co-workers he hangs out with. These fleeting friendships depict the conditions and hardships of each peer, along with the idea that, even if the co-workers’ desires don’t coincide with Elias’ desires as a homosexual, they are meant to help him discover what he wants. Elias grows closer to another employee, Wellington, a much more openly gay man. His “body electric” truly comes to life after some eye-opening encounters with a circle of drag queens.
A new world opens for Elias. His trans gang is fond of Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” a song used to depict sexual fluidity in another LGBT movie, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood. The sense of freedom and glamour is again used to express the pride and resistance of those who don’t feel comfortable with their assigned gender but still accept themselves for who they truly are. Unsurprisingly, the gang’s love for whimsical, over the top fabric brings Elias closer to accepting the tough group. Resembling the iconic Grace Jones, the charismatic Wellington seems to be the catalyst for Elias’ sexual awakening. The cheerful group rides their mopeds wearing glittery make-up, partying after their drag shows in a part of the city that seems welcoming of their sexuality.
Even though Brazil is one of the most LGBT-tolerant countries, with a liberal legislation that allows gay couples to marry and adopt children, there’s also a lot of homophobia and killings associated with anti-gay violence. Even if this menace is not clearly touched upon in Corpo Elétrico, the excitement of Elias’ sexual awakening does, in fact, become interrupted by reality. And so, there’s a contrast provided through Elias’ boss, a serious manager who gently warns that the consequences of a flamboyant lifestyle might affect one’s professional career.
With Corpo Elétrico, Marcelo Caetano doesn’t bother to focus on the dark side of his carefree story. The film is more of a mood piece than a purely narrative feature, one that prefers to focus on the nuances of being different. Corpo Elétrico has a compact plot, which raises questions on how personal differences could bring us closer rather than tearing us apart. On the other hand, the simplicity of the plot, while intriguing, could have benefited from more character development, as Caetano doesn’t explain why we are different. He doesn’t seem to care about reasoning, about being gay, black or white — these are attributes that define his characters, and this is a good thing. One doesn’t have to apologise for their individuality, and that’s what Elias endlessly does.
Andreea Pătru (@andreeapatru89) is a Romanian film critic and programmer who resides in Spain. Apart from taking part in the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy and Talents Sarajevo in 2016, she has written for Indiewire, Desistfilm and collaborated with Romanian outlets such as Film Reporter, Observator Cultural and FILM magazine. Andreea is a programmer at Tenerife Shorts – Tenerife International Short Film Festival and has previously worked for Romanian Film Promotion.