Iremar (Juliano Cazarré) is a bull handler who travels from one Brazilian rodeo to another. It’s a life lived on the road, with a small gang of fellow nomads. They pitch up, do their job, then move on. Like a little family they eat together, joke, squabble. They have each others’ backs.
Iremar is the guy who puts chalk on the bulls’ tails, so the guys on horseback out in the arena can better grab a hold (these rodeos seem to consist of grabbing the tail and flipping the bull onto its back). By day he applies chalk, opens the gate into the arena to let the bulls run, then cleans up afterwards, shovelling shit, and loading bulls back onto the wagon before moving on.
They’re a tight band, but Neon Bull is most interested in Iremar, a single guy who likes to design clothes in his spare time and dreams of a different life – in fashion. To a lesser extent also Galega (Maeve Jinkings), the group’s driver, cook and general roustabout, who sometimes dresses up in sexy outfits Iremar has designed and dances for the rodeo guys. Her daughter, Cacá (Alyne Santana), a girl entering womanhood who maybe looks to Iremar as a stand-in for her absent father. And Zé (Carlos Pessoa), a gnarly, pot-bellied rough diamond with a highly developed interest in porn magazines.
If this were an Australian soap, at some point early on one or other of Iremar’s gang would sit down and say “Mate, I’m so lonely, it’s the one thing that’s really bugging me”. But this isn’t an Australian soap so no one says anything like that.
But lonely, or alone at least, they all are – Iremar, Galega, Cacá and Zé – it’s the itch they can’t quite scratch.
And if this were another sort of film, Iremar at some point would negotiate himself out of the gay closet that his interest in clothes would seem to have put him in, and manoeuvre his way through his very macho world and on out to freedom. Or he’d hook up with Galega and complete Cacá’s family unit.
Instead, in supremely matter-of-fact style, director/co-writer Gabriel Mascaro tells a tightly structured and episodic story about a search for fulfilment which, on the surface, seems to be anything but.
At one point, in a little poetic interlude that sums up the emotional mood, a shirtless man on horseback enters a spotlit ring, makes his horse lay down on the ground, then lays down with it and starts to massage it. The horse ends up on its back, with its legs up in the air, enjoying the caresses much as a dog would.
At another, Iremar and Zé try to steal the semen of a prize stallion, to raise money for Iremar’s designs, a theft that requires Iremar to masturbate the horse and Zé to stand ready with a jar.
The woozily sentimental and the emphatically practical go hand in hand (bad choice of phrase) in Neon Bull, a film with a crystalline documentary-like surface and something much more feral going on below. The performances are loose and natural, with the young Alyne Santana the best of a talented group of performers, possibly because at times Santana is not acting at all, just fooling around.
Mascaro has an eye for an image but doesn’t indulge it too much, as if to maintain the effect of watching something just caught on the fly rather than pre-planned. His camera barely moves, and when it does, he zooms or pans at speeds designed not to break the illusion of eavesdropping.
Taking of which, the sex scene towards the end, when Iremar gets lucky with a woman who is eight months’ pregnant. On a cutting table in a deserted clothing factory at night. Is it for real? No intimacy co-ordinator required? Mascaro has been asked a few times and each time is slightly coy in his answer. Why shatter the illusion? Illusion is what this film is largely selling. Mascaro makes it worth buying.
Neon Bull – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2023