Brazilian cinema has not shied away from portraying strong, sexually empowered women throughout its history; from Sônia Braga’s title character Dona Flor in Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands in 1976 to Braga’s very own Clara in Aquarius, four decades later in 2016. However, this apparent avant-garde feat still heavily echoes a Euro-centric archetype of the Brazilian woman as a highly seductive, morally ambiguous creature who is the ultimate accessory to the (male) hero’s journey, often abdicating her own ambitions and desires in order to fulfil whichever needs the holy man displays.
With that being said, female sexuality had a central role at this year’s Brazilian contribution to the London Film Festival, with the majority of the entries openly approaching the subject, such as Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles, 2019), Divine Love (Gabriel Mascaro, 2019) and Burning Night (Eryk Rocha, 2019). These films show a significant shift in the portrayal of female sexuality in Brazilian cinema, one that is well overdue.
Precisely claustrophobic, Burning Night superbly dwells on the loneliness of marginalisation, a tale of a modern flâneur that poetically reflects on the uncertainties of life in the ever-changing, chaotic underground world of Rio de Janeiro. Paulo (Fabrício Boliveira), a struggling taxi driver, attempting to make ends meet by working throughout the night, counting on the energy-filled young people who party until sunrise.
The film finally finds its force when it introduces the character of Karina (Bábara Colen), a nurse that hops into Paulo’s taxi after completing yet another one of her long night shifts. Karina is soft-spoken but brutally open, a stark contrast to the quiet, observant Paulo. Karina uses her sexual drive to numb the gruelling feeling of hopelessness that surrounds her. Paulo leaps into it with her, needing a dose of an anaesthetic himself. Their sexual encounters are as passionate as they are desperate, a flesh-tempered ritual of oblivion.
Ritualistic can’t even begin to describe the protagonist’s relationship to sex in Divine Love, a dystopian tale that takes place in a near-future Brazilian society where conservative values have risen to normalcy and the far-right traits that currently endanger Brazilian democracy have solidified. In this stark reality, deeply religious clerk Joana (Dira Paes) uses her position at a registry office to prevent couples from getting divorced. To her, marriage is a sacred institution that requires protection at all costs.
As the saying goes, the carpenter’s house always needs work, and Joana battles against the wreckage of her own marriage, caused by the couple’s inability to conceive a child. Desperate for an heir, Joana, and her husband attend the cult-like Church of Divine Love, where their conservative values are quickly replaced by less-puritan practices such as partner swapping and group sex. Under bright neon lights, the couples-only church doctrines their followers through a conflicting mix of morally contrasting ceremonies, reflecting the hypocrisy heavily criticised within Brazilian society.
Just as in Burning Night, here we have a woman who employs sex as a form of opiate, a thrilling escape from questions that have no answers. Both Karina and Joana undress literally and metaphorically, leaving behind all traces of anguish and immersing themselves in pleasure. Sex is ritualistic and healing, and the women are not only in control of their bodies but also of what they are getting out of the transaction. These women have sex for reasons beyond pleasuring their male companions or any other patriarchal-guided purpose.
Joined by long-time contributor and friend Juliano Dornelles, Kleber Mendonça Filho brings yet another class-oriented account of conflict and belonging in the superb Bacurau. The small village that names the film is a psychedelic-infused community where women are not afraid to take the lead of sexual dynamics. Within the film’s first minutes we are introduced to Teresa (Bárbara Colen, yet again), a young woman returning to her hometown of Bacurau after the passing of her grandmother.
Once more, the Brazil portrayed onscreen is a near-future image of chaos and hopelessness, but differently from what is seen in Divine Love, Bacurau depicts the exception to the rule in its presentation of a matriarchal society, one that is fighting for survival amid a greedy capitalist wave of natural destruction. Stripping himself of the quiet, nostalgic narratives of his previous features, Mendonça Filho unleashes beautifully crafted cinematic anger in the form of bloody clashes between a village under siege and their foreign attackers.
In the eye of the hurricane, Teresa seeks comfort in the arms of self-proclaimed ex-bad boy Acácio (Thomas Aquino), widely known as Pacote. With the accumulated confidence of all past women before her, Teresa employs Pacote to alleviate her own tensions, explicitly and openly inviting him for sex – a transaction that she is ultimately in charge of. Her nude post-coital figure bathed by moonlight shows a woman who is the product of a society that allowed her to explore her own desires, to the same degree that men are allowed to do so elsewhere.
Sadly, despite the important advances depicted in the aforementioned films, they are all directed by men, a too common statistic when it comes to Brazilian film production. Even the most liberated female characters in Brazilian cinema are presented to the audience through male optics. Numbers show that, out of all commercially released films in Brazil, only 17% are directed by women, a staggering number that reflects a painful reality that permeates the film industry as a whole.
Luckily, women who have been paving the way towards change for years are finally starting to get a slice of the recognition they deserve. Directors such as Petra Costa, Anna Muylaert, Viviane Ferreira and Juliana Rojas are all prominent names in the Brazilian film industry, often bringing women-led tales to screen. More than that: these women portray other women like them, who have passions and fears that go way beyond their connection to a man.
Brazilian film production has profited from portraying women through harmful over-sexualised stereotypes for too long. Onscreen, whenever a woman is not employing all of her efforts towards seducing a man, she is weeping for one, praying for one or dwelling over the rejection that will surely mark her as a lesser being before her peers. The industry does permit a subtle touch of honest female sexual behaviour when used for comic relief, knowing too well comedies are a consolidated box-office hit in the country.
Karina, Joana, and Teresa are not immune to the sexist standards that still taint the portrait of female sexuality in Brazilian cinema, but they represent a glimpse of hope amidst havoc. To see women openly explore their sexuality and proudly benefit from it, free from the heavy chains years of incorrect depiction have attached to their feet feels like a breath of fresh air; especially during the current period of darkness and cultural regression in Brazil. The road is one too long and poorly navigated, but we’ll get there, one realistic female orgasm at a time.
by Rafaela Sales Ross