Review: Don't Call Me Son & Neon Bull at VLAFF

Still from Don't Call Me Son

Still from Don't Call Me Son

In its fourteenth year running, the Vancouver Latin American Film Festival—now an annual staple for Vancouver’s cultural community—decided to cast its eye on Brazil as its guest country. And it made a particularly timely and wise choice in doing so. Brazil has been in the headlines much lately—from the Zika virus and the Olympics to political turmoil, the southern nation has had the spotlight cast on it whether wanted or not. And, with last week’s shocking and divisive impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, one can only assume that the polemics will continue. 

So it is perhaps now more pressing than ever before to draw attention to the aspects of Brazil that exist beyond the news; to its arts and culture, and to the strong voices who are representing it outside of the realm of politics. With this in mind, VLAFF welcomed writer and director Anna Mulyaert to Vancouver to present a retrospective of her work—a film career that has spanned decades and made her one of the most important voices in contemporary Brazilian cinema. 

I am almost ashamed to admit, after becoming more familiar with her impressive roster of films at this year’s VLAFF, my first introduction to Anna Mulyaert was only last year. And it was by chance that I caught her most recent (at the time) film, The Second Mother, at its 2015 VIFF screening. The wonderfully funny and smart tale of a mother-daughter relationship put to the test amid the delicate social politics of contemporary Sao Paolo had me hooked from its first frames. Anchored by an incredible performance by the charismatic Regina Case, The Second Mother deservedly went on to receive countless accolades and claim various coveted awards on the festival circuit, including the Panorama Award at Berlin and the Horizons Special Jury Prize at Sundance.

It was thus with eager anticipation that I joined a full house on VLAFF’s closing night, on September 4, to watch Anna Mulyaert’s most recent film, Don’t Call Me Son. I was certainly not disappointed. 

Mulyaert has built her career on darkly comic films that subtly thumb their nose at the socio-political dimensions of contemporary life and relationships, and, as one audience member commented, are “decidedly anti-authoritarian”. She is also very concerned with issues of love, belonging and identity, a connective thread that has weaved itself through her work since its beginnings.

Don’t Call Me Son is the story of Pierre, a seventeen-year-old whose life seems to be going much like that of any normal teenager’s; he lives with his mother and younger sister, spaces out in his literature class at school, plays in a band with his friends, attends parties and hooks up with pretty girls on the weekend… and locks himself in the bathroom to paint his nails, use his mother’s lipstick and take selfies of his lace-garter-bedecked behind. 

Pierre’s world is about to implode, though. One fateful day his mother arrives home late from work, and tells him that there are some men waiting outside who would like to speak with him. What ensues seems too surreal to be true (but, as Mulyaert will later confirm, truth is almost always stranger than fiction)—the men are police officers, and they have come to inform Pierre that he will need to undergo an immediate DNA test, as there has been a complaint filed by a family claiming that he was stolen from them at birth. 

The strength of Mulyaert’s talent comes into play almost immediately at this revelation. What could develop as a farcical, over-the-top drama of identity politics instead unfolds as a quiet and nuanced portrait of a schizophrenic shift at life’s roots. Pierre—known to his birth family as Felipe—soon finds himself shoved unwillingly into the arms of a mother, father and brother who have spent his entire life searching for him and mourning his absence. Not only does he have a new family—one who lives in a shiny gated community peppered with high-brow art and full of elaborate meals prepared by the live-in maid—but a new bedroom, new clothes, a new school and no access to his mother (who has been imprisoned) nor his sister (who, it turns out, was also stolen at birth, and has been shipped off to a new family of strangers as well). 

With deft acuity, Mulyaert navigates the fragile terrain that both Pierre/Felipe and his birth family must walk (or tiptoe) around each other to establish their new roles and relationships. As Pierre continues to explore his sexuality and identity, we are also privy to the tensions that arise as his mother and father struggle and stretch themselves to accept him and to cater to his whims (some designed purposefully to spite them). The result is moving, intelligent, funny and poignant cinema—with Mulyaert’s name written all over it. 

In the Q&A period after the screening, Mulyaert graciously fielded questions about her work as a woman in film, as a Latin American director, and as a mother (her two children both make cameos in the film). She shared that the film was actually based on a true story which occurred several years ago in Brazil. She felt compelled to explore how its premise would unfold with the additional layer of a young queer man exploring his identity. She also noted that she keeps returning to the themes of identity and belonging because she believes they are issues which we all face at one time or another, and that we must all eventually construct our own identities, independent of those assigned to us at birth. “I believe that our parents are loaned to us—we all must break away from them at one point”, she said. “We have to shape ourselves freely in the world”. 

Accompanied by restrained, sensitive camera work which captures both the tension of weighted exchanges as well as the vivid nightlife and seductive grime of Sao Paolo’s streets, Don’t Call Me Son is destined to catapult Anna Mulyaert’s star into North American eyes—a very worthy reason for Brazil’s name to be in lights.

Still from Neon Bull

Still from Neon Bull

Gabriel Mascaro is quickly proving to be one of Brazil’s most promising young talents. His first feature film, August Winds (which screened at VIFF in 2014), was a quiet and reflective musing on time and place, unfolding in a small seaside town in north-eastern Brazil. Returning to a rural setting and to his masterfully artful penchant for the observational, Mascaro’s latest, Neon Bull, is a beautiful and languid portrait of the life of a cowboy.

That cowboy’s name is Iremar—a handsome bull-handler who works as part of a touring gang of cattle-hands, transporting and prepping their bulls for a very Brazilian rodeo: the vaquejada, a sport that involves pulling bulls to the ground by their tails. While Iremar spends the better part of his days trudging through mud and cow dung, and picking up the coloured ribbons along with other debris after the party has gone home, his true passion lies elsewhere: he dreams of designing women’s clothing and of putting his skills as a tailor to use.

Mascaro is evidently concerned with gender roles, and uses his characters to subtly subvert what the audience may expect as established norms in a country that is still very conservative. Iremar puts his talent to work designing costumes for Galega, a young single mother who, along with her daughter Caca, forms another member of this rag-tag group. Galega works as an exotic dancer for groups of men after the rodeo has wrapped—and also drives the other (all male) rodeo hands from town to town in their industrial truck.

Another member joins the crew when Iremar and his partner, Ze, attempt to steal the sperm of a prize stud at a horse auction (a scene for the records) and Ze—in a rather unexpected turn of events—is contracted to work as a horse wrangler and replaced by the young (fittingly named) Junior. Junior is vain and spends his time carefully preening himself and ironing his long locks into submission—a scene strikingly similar to one we see earlier when a mare at the auction is having her hair primped and sprayed in preparation for her showing. 

The line between the film’s characters and the animals they tend is thin in Mascaro’s lush and earthy world. Neon Bull is full of physicality: whether it is a prolonged sequence of a man brushing down a prostrate horse with utter gentleness and care, or Galega and Junior making passionate love against the cow pen, Mascaro manages to paint it all with a wild and heavy sensuality. And his eye for detail, colour and harmony evoke exactly that—a painting. While the film centres on the daily interactions between characters and their rather mundane existence, the real protagonist is the landscape—both the countryside as captured through Mascaro’s lens and also the evocative palette of varied moods and hues that are the backdrop to his gorgeous film. 

Neon Bull deservedly took home the Special Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival this year, and solidifies Mascaro’s place among the finest of Latin America’s emerging art house filmmakers. Ending with perhaps one of the most beautiful sex scenes in recent film history, Neon Bull is visual and sensory indulgence at its fullest.