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Neon Bull

Friday Apr 15, 2016
Juliano Cazarré stars in 'Neon Bull'
Juliano Cazarré stars in 'Neon Bull'  

Iremar (Juliano Cazarré) works as a "vaqueiro," a rodeo cowhand in Brazil's northeastern region, a place of vast landscapes dotted with industrial plants and factories. When he's not working with the bulls, Iremar gathers scraps of cloth from any available source -- a landfill will do -- and fashions sexy outfits for his co-worker Galega (Maeve Jinkings), who moonlights as a dancer. It's surely no oversight that Iremar's own clothes are a little ragged, though chosen with an eye to style; also telling is the way Iremar, measuring and scrutinizing Galega with an intimacy usually reserved for lovers, instructs her at one point, "Let me see your mane."

There's a definite sexual tension between Iremar and Galega -- from her side, anyway -- but their relationship has settled into that of surrogate siblings, and Iremar seems content to let it stay that way. Meantime, Galega's daughter Cacá (Alyne Santana) has reached an age where Iremar is becoming more than a father figure to her; she's starting to have the first flickers of romantic interest in the ruggedly handsome man, perhaps in part because he's so comfortable and competent with large animals and Cacá has started to pine for a horse.

Together with their co-worker Zé (Carlos Pessoa), these co-workers share a rough, familial existence that hovers close to the earth. Their home is a large truck designed to transport livestock; their existence is nomadic, as they work the rodeo circuit. Sleeping in hammocks, bathing from buckets, and cooking in makeshift, open-air kitchens, they live in such close quarters that privacy is impossible, let alone secrecy. In one scene, Iremar steals Zé's porno magazine in order to use its photos of naked women as a sketch pad for his design ideas; the pages are stuck together with semen, which is funny and disgusting enough, but then the horse-obsessed Cacá steals the magazine in turn to add her own equine drawings. ("Porn? Really?" her mother chides.) Dreams and dirt coexist here, without shame but also with little real hope.

But if glamor and glory find these people only in bits and snatches, less extravagant ambitions seem equally elusive. A strapping young vaqueiro who loves fashion and seems uninterested in his beautiful blonde colleague? Is Iremar gay? The question is never directly addressed. Galena sets about waxing in the cab of the big truck, but her ablutions are for the audiences of cheering men for whom she dances in Iremar's scanty, provocative outfits (while wearing, strangely enough, a fake horse head). Iremar himself remains out of her reach.

When a handsome young man called Júnior (Vinícius de Oliveira) joins the crew, a whole new chemistry begins to establish itself: Júnior, with his long locks and constant primping, seems a little androgynous. Will he bring out a hidden side of Iremar? Or will the attentions of Geise (Samya De Lavor), a pregnant cosmetics saleswoman, spark an interest in Iremar in something other than fabrics and clothing designs? (Guise seems to have the inside track here: As it happens, she's also a security guard at a large clothing factory, a place Iremar reveres as heaven on earth.)

Writer-director Gabriel Mascaro has a sense for the dust, the pace, and the tedium of lives lived on the margins. When he brings an extra jolt of action or humor into the story -- as in one sequence in which Iremar and Zé set out to steal a champion horse's semen, only for things to go horribly, drenchingly wrong -- Mascaro never allows the material to be overplayed. At the same time, the the lusts, ambitions, and disappointments of his characters don't hit you on the head. Instead, they stand back, as if with hesitance; you can run for the goal, Mascaro seems to be saying, but life has a way of yanking you by the tail and bringing you down. Still, the thrill is in the chase, and you can believe that these dusty, rootless people will never be content to surrender their dreams.

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