The opening moments of writer/director Anita Rocha da Silveira’s Medusa are absolutely riveting. The 2021 film begins with a long, unbroken shot of a woman performing a provocative, animalistic dance, until that footage is revealed to be an online video being watched by a young girl while traveling on a bus. The girl later walks down an alley somewhere in Brazil that da Silveira and her crew present as a space that looks right out of 80s Italian horror films, all harsh neon and saturated primary colors. The girl is then attacked by a group of her peers, a gang of college-age girls all wearing the same featureless white mask, who beat her and accuse her of committing blasphemous acts (blasphemous, that is, in the eyes of strict fundamentalism). They force the girl to make a confession to her “sins” on a smartphone video, then walk away triumphant, the strains of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Cities in Dust” blaring on the soundtrack while the opening credits roll. It’s a hypnotic and utterly fascinating sequence, and promises that Medusa will contain more of the same.
Unfortunately, da Silveria seems to have so much on her mind that Medusa begins to lose its plot almost immediately. The film focuses on one member of the judgmental girl gang, the 21-year old Mariana (Mari Oliveira), as she fulfills her role as a member of an evangelical religious group-cum-college that’s steeped in fundamentalism. The girl gang have their counterparts in a boys gang called the Watchmen of Sion that’s part military unit, part sports team, the boys roaming the streets in police-like fashion at night while the girls enact their vigilantism. (It speaks to Medusa’s too-wide focus that it never brings up the idea of anyone objecting to these gangs and their activities, either from within or without the religious community.) Da Silveira paints a picture of a fully fascist society grown out of Brazil’s social trends of today, with indoctrination being committed via influencer social media accounts while enforcement of evangelical values are enacted through violence and oppression. It’s a thematically and visually rich world created for Medusa, yet da Silveira gets hopelessly lost within it. Rather than sticking with these gangs and their members, the film follows Mari and her best friend Michele (Lara Tremouroux) as they see an opportunity for Mari to go “undercover” at a local clinic for comatose patients, which Mari becomes convinced is the home of a social pariah who’d been disfigured by a zealot years ago. While there, Mari undergoes a series of awakenings that distance her further from the creepy demands of her peers, their hypocritical televangelist-like pastor (Thiago Fragoso) and even her own misguided faith as she comes to realize that devotion to this religious order is just a form of patriarchal control and suppression.
As that short description implies, Medusa is a lot of movie, and unfortunately it doesn’t all hold together. Da Silveira’s influences are as vast as they are evident: there’s a good deal of everyone from Mario Bava to Dario Argento, Stanley Kubrick, Nicolas Winding Refn and Bertrand Bonello to be seen here, amongst others. Medusa moves between religious satire, mythological allegory (if the title wasn’t clue enough, the film shows Mari using a bright green face cream that makes her look very Gorgon-esque), neo-Giallo, art-horror and even a musical, as Michele and the girl gang sing pop-tinged original sacred songs during their church’s ceremony. Certainly there are a bunch of similarly radical and ambitious films that manage to gracefully (or aggressively) move from tone to tone and genre to genre, but da Silveira lets Medusa digress and meander far too much for these shifts to work. There are large passages of the movie where it’s not clear what is happening, whether da Silveira is showing Mari’s subjective point of view, a fantasy, a hallucination or an objective, surrealistic flourish. It almost feels like da Silveira is making her movie via free association, using each scene as an inspiration for the next to shoot off into a new direction without caring how it gels with the scenes before it. One gets the sense that Medusa is in the hands of someone who’s super imaginative and curious but isn’t fully in control, the narrative dissipating to the point where nearly all tension is lost.
It’s a shame, because Medusa features wonderful cinematography and performances. Oliveira does a fantastic job of portraying a linear progression for Mari even when the film seems determined to unmoor her, and Tremouroux makes Michele fascinatingly complex, a Stepford Wives-like girl who slowly, thanks to Mari, sees the artificial and stifling world she’s become trapped within. Da Silveira and cinematographer João Atala manage to do visually what the film as a whole cannot, balancing the movie’s disparate elements with an aesthetic that’s pastel-heavy while letting light and shadow contrast as much as possible. While Medusa never commits to being a horror film, it does have some effectively spooky moments, such as when Mari looks for a woman in a clinic basement. The movie has similar highlights for each of its disparate genres, and it’s through these that the film at least feels like it has some sort of pay-off.
Ultimately, Medusa is so overstuffed that it can’t find a way to tie its myriad conflicting tones together, bringing down a movie that begins with so much potential. To be fair, the issues the film raises are far from easily resolved, with the victory — for the characters and the work itself — being more about raising awareness and breaking cycles of behavior and less about concrete change. For that reason, however, Medusa can’t quite find a catharsis that’s satisfying, resorting to incoherence (literally and figuratively) in the face of so much overwhelming frustration. Far from releasing the tension, it just makes the film more numbing, hardly the call to action that da Silveira seems to want to make. Thematically, Medusa wants to inverse the myth of the titular character, having a woman be able to free others from their metaphorical prisons with a look. Instead, the film seems to have the same effect that the Gorgon had, turning the viewer to stone.
Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.