In his brief time in fiction filmmaking, Gabriel Mascaro has emerged as a director with a complex, detached and stylish approach to eroticism in his work. August Winds (2014) offered it explicitly, but in Mascaro’s most recent effort Neon Bull, it’s something more subtle that is threaded into actions, ambitions, dreams, and the array of images and encounters that make up the vast majority of the work. Mascaro eschews clarity of narrative in favour of steeping the film in layers of light surrealism, but despite the frequent dips into feverish cinematic landscapes, it never finds itself straying too far from reality.
The narrative that plays out over the course of Neon Bull embodies the pacing of slow cinema. Mascaro establishes the characters of Iremar, Galega, Cacá and Zé, then complicates their narrative after Zé is replaced with the enigmatic Junior, before long takes of multiple dreamlike sequences close out the work. In all of this, Neon Bull builds itself on the isolation and impermanence tied to the nature of the bull handlers’ job, as they travel between rodeos. Mascaro’s approach to this temporality emphasises a subjectivity in the time that passes on screen, with images blurring into one another in a defined aesthetic coherency.
This integral visual element throughout Neon Bull owes itself largely to the presence of cinematographer, Diego Garcia. Best known for his work on Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour, he continues his approach to capturing light and contrasts, with a remarkable depth of frame throughout. This crisp approach to cinematography sits well with the desolate, rural landscapes in which Neon Bull operates. While contrasting humanity against an expansive natural world in the same way as he does in Weerasethakul’s work, Garcia also allows Mascaro’s film to conjure up similar dreamlike meditations on luminescence within the night, creating frictions that work as a foil to the bright exposure used in framing the daytime scenes.
The constant presence of masculinity in Neon Bull is far less fascinating in and of itself than in the way it shifts throughout different scenes. The isolation played out on screen, and the subsequent loneliness and boredom, forms an atmosphere where masculinity is malleable to the interest of the scene; restless, erotic and dictated by milieu. Iremar is Mascaro’s case study in this exercise, as a working man travelling through rural Brazil from rodeo to rodeo. His time is spent herding bulls, but his dreams are tied to tailoring clothing — he steals one of Zé’s pornographic magazines and drawing a dress onto the woman, which we see later being worn by Galega as she performs on stage. When Junior appears, he’s portrayed as a less overtly masculine character, yet ends up expressing a similar virility to Iremar. Mascaro attempts to draw out a more fluid and nuanced representation of masculinity in his characters, but there’s a certain nuance that comes up missing. This comes up in an intentionally comedic degree in how Junior is portrayed, instantly getting on with Cacá and attracting the attention of Galega when he arrives on the scene. From straightening his hair, to playing in a sandpit with Cacá, he’s portrayed as comfortable and engaged, while Iremar’s tailoring ambitions so often feel out of reach.
Mascaro’s approach to physicality and eroticism in Neon Bull lies in breaking the contrasts between the characters. While both themes were a major tenet of August Winds, Neon Bull makes it a constant and weaves it into its dreamlike pace. The final two scenes of the film mark a thematic crescendo and catharsis for Iremar, with the longing, labour and isolation losing their tension and lapsing into a weightless reverie. This uncertain pacing, loose narrative and consistent ambiguity make it unlikely that Neon Bull is going to have a legacy as a crowd-pleaser, but Mascaro’s work clearly has an audience that will find the film alluring, and at times, beautiful.
Around the Staff