After winning a special mention at Locarno’s 2014 Film Festival with Ventos de Agosto, Brazilian director Gabriel Mascaro arrives at Cartagena’s 56th Film Festival with Boi Neon (Neon Bull), a little cinematic gem whose 101 minutes have been, thus far, the most applauded of this year’s official competition.
A group of cowboys drives across the rugged North-East of Brazil carrying a pack of bulls to the Vaquejadas, the traditional rodeos where two cowboys on horseback must pit the bull between the horses before pulling its tail and knocking it down. The nomadic troupe travels from one rodeo to another, featuring amongst its members preadolescent Cacá (a girl who knows just as many swearwords as her older colleagues), her young mother Galega (wife to a husband who’s been gone for years), Zé (an overweight cowboy with an addiction for porn), and finally Iremar, the drama’s protagonist, a buffed and tough-looking cowboy with an unusual passion for fashion design.
Mascaro paints his rural Brazil as a wasteland filled with abandoned industrial buildings and open-air landfills, populated with characters who dream to be someone they are not, and will probably never be. Cacá dreams of owning a horse (but must get her hands dirty with bull manure on a daily basis), Galega wants to become a dancer (but can only perform some explicit burlesque before dozens of jubilant cowboys), and Iremar spends his free time collecting broken mannequins and designing his clothes on top of Zed’s porn pictures.
Given the premises, it is easy to see how Boi Neon could have easily turned into a melodramatic portrait of rural Brazil, ridden with pity and sorrow. But it does not, because notwithstanding his young directing career, Mascaro’s skills behind the camera and as a storyteller are extraordinary.
Iremar’s tale is bound to elicit a certain sense of sadness, but Mascaro chooses to deconstruct it in a way that is, at once, mellow and ironic. He does not ask us to we feel sorry for Iremar’s condition, for Iremar is not trapped within a body he does not accept, nor does he feel particularly uncomfortable performing a role society has assigned him. There’s a memorable scene in which Iremar snatches one of Zé’s porn magazines and begins to draw over a lady’s naked body. The camera shows Iremar sketching what appears to be some sober underwear on top of the woman’s genitalia, and the viewer is led to believe he’s trying to prudishly cover them. But a few seconds later, when the lens is back on the page, Iremar’s drawing has turned into an overly promiscuous outfit that leaves very little room for imagination. Iremar’s two sides, as well as those of the other crew members, simply coexist. And this is probably the film’s ultimate message and what makes it stand out as a remarkable work: to accept one’s diversity is to ultimately appreciate the syncretism that is inherent in human nature.
There are plenty of films about people trapped within hostile surroundings from which they try (and fail) to escape; there are plenty which add to these constraints a gender dimension, but only a few which manage to do the above with the mixture of irony and tenderness with which Mascaro paints his Boi Neon. His name is a beautiful and much-welcomed discovery for Latin America and world cinema at large.