The MFA presents two films about worlds as strange as those depicted in “X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” but without the special effects.
Even the titles are strange and require explanation. The title of Gabriel Mascaro’s episodic and epiphanic “Neon Bull” refers to the final act of the night for an itinerant rodeo in modern-day Brazil. Two cowboys chase after a bull coated with luminescent paint and knock him over by grabbing his tail.
It is a hard world in the countryside where they tour, but one of the handlers, Iremar (Juliano Cazarré) aspires to create beauty by designing clothes. In one scene the tracking camera follows him as he walks through a bog, muck sucking up his feet, to gather some of the hundreds of brightly colored scarves discarded there. It looks like a close-up of an impressionist painting. The rags will be part of the costumes he creates for another worker, Galega (Maeve Jinkings). She performs an erotic dance dressed in nothing but a horse mask and hoof-like shoes.
Mascaro works much like his protagonist, gathering together details, images, and scenes to create unexpected visions. The narrative seems desultory and repetitive until it coalesces into some arresting, if not perverse, sequences: like a couple having sex among the cattle in the stalls. Even more fetishistic is a scene where a man makes love to a pregnant security guard (who sells perfumes by day) on top of a big fabric-covered table in a clothing factory. It is a realism that abruptly transforms into something metaphoric, erotic, tender, and disturbing.
Reality is harsh in Wallachia (a province that will one day be part of Romania) in the 1830s, as Constandin (Teodor Corban), the anti-hero of Romanian director Radu Jude’s period road story “Aferim!” (the 19th-century Romanian version of “awesome!”) keeps pointing out. He’s a constable with a teenage son who helps him track down the runaway gypsy slave of a boyar (nobleman) known for his cruelty. Like the antithesis of Don Quixote, he regals his son with tales of sardonic cruelty and cynical aphorisms with the overall lesson that evil is ubiquitous of the world and it is futile to oppose it.
Jude shoots the scenes of them riding on horseback and terrorizing peasants and slaves in long shot; sometimes you have to search for them, tiny ink blots on the barren landscapes. The tone is Rabelaisian and earthily comic in the minimalist, picturesque squalor of the settings.
When they find the fugitive, even the hardened father has doubts about the morality of his task. There is no doubt about the increasingly brutal tone, with Goyaesque scenes of mounting horror. Maybe these worlds are not so different from our own after all.
Directed by Gabriel Mascaro. Written by Mascaro, Cesar Turim
and Daniel Bandeira. Starring Juliano Cazarré and Maeve Jinkings. At the
MFA Theatre. 101 minutes. Unrated (graphic sex and nudity, casual animal
Directed by Radu Jude. Written by Jude and Florin Lazrescu.
Starring Teodor Corban and Cuzin Toma. At the MFA. 106 minutes. Unrated
(graphic sex and violence).
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.