Gabriel Mascaro Takes on Macho Culture In His Film on a Cowboy Who Dreams of Designing Clothes

It’s not every day you can write that a film features an “equine money shot” but Gabriel Mascaro’s Boi Neon (Neon Bull) has one scene that merits such a description. It’s not even the most sexually charged scene in a film that oozes eroticism even as it approaches sex in the simplest of terms. In a climactic (pun intended) sex scene, Mascaro keeps his camera still, letting his actors take control of the frame. He uses this approach throughout, in scenes that involve bulls in the famed vaquejadas in North-Western Brazil and in those that merely show his characters sharing a meal outdoors. Those still shots make us keenly aware of the actors’ bodies and the intimacy they’re sharing. The occasional full frontal nudity feels almost incidental; it’s only explicit in the sense that it shows us bodies they way they exist in the world. The most thrilling part of the film may well be the way it pushes back against traditional ideas about shame and sexuality.

At its core though, as Mascaro told Remezcla, Neon Bull is an attempt at exploring the changing landscape and culture of a rapidly growing Brazilian countryside. Played with masculine verve and surprising vulnerability by leading man Juliano Cazarré, Iremar is a cowhand involved in the vaquejadas who dreams of being a fashion designer. If that description has you making assumptions about his sexuality or manliness, be prepared for them to be brushed aside by a script and a story that attempts instead at doing away with labels. The plot synopsis may sound thin but that’s because Mascaro’s film is content with following Iremar and his colleagues, which include Galega, a driver who moonlights as a nighttime female entertainer where she shows off Iremar’s couture pieces and her young daughter, who dreams of one day owning a horse, in their day to day lives. But when that includes aiding a sport where cowboys on horses knock over bulls, it really doesn’t lack drama.

Ahead of the film’s premiere at New Directors/New Films in New York City, we hopped on Skype with Mascaro to talk about the film’s striking visuals, its social message, and yes, that horse semen scene that’ll surely have everyone talking. Check out some highlights from our chat below.

On What The Film Says About Modern Brazil

“In cinema, we tend to not show scenes that don’t add to the psychodrama of the characters. I tried to do the opposite, to bring on screen things that are really part of our bodily experience.”

I grew up very close to the countryside. And I grew up with this event, this vaquejada, as part of my mindset. This place, this region, there was no cinema, no theater, no cultural activity. And this vaquejada is the big economical and cultural event. And in these different cities, far from the economical center. When I was older, like five years ago, I came across this event and I see how it changed a lot since I was younger. It was like, Oh my god! It’s been updated. Very contemporary. Capitalism had developed it — and Brazil has been developing very fast in these last ten years. It changed a lot in terms of human relationships and landscape, industrialization and all these different perspectives that changed the Brazilian countryside very rapidly. For example, the fashion industry that the film shows, this #FashionCity, it’s become like an industrial place in the middle of nowhere specializing in surfwear in a place where there’s no water! And the people in the region started to wear this surfer wear to work with cows, in agriculture. So it was interesting to see these rapid changes. That’s created these new human relationships.

So the film uses the vaquejada as an allegory of the contemporary Brazilian development and its contradictions. So, for example, that place where Iremar walks in this cloth-strewn landscape, where scraps of cloth are basura, just trash. And you find that it’s beautiful but when you realize it’s all rubbish from the fashion industry — it’s so colorful. It’s actually changed the landscape. This place, which used to be very monochromatic, very sandy, is now very colorful. So how to find a film that looks at this not, in a way, naively — it could be very easy, for example, to say, oh development is bad. I’m not interested in such judgment. But how can we see the ambiguity of these things are now part of our culture.

On Moving Beyond Labels

When I decided to make a film about this, I started thinking about making a film about the body. So how can we talk about the body without sort of going through this taxonomy of identities? Firstly, we show a cowboy who wants to be a fashion designer, all these ideas that he could be gay come by very quickly and also the driver, Galega, is some kind of inversion. But the idea is to step by step deconstruct that. These are just bodies that can do what they want. They can play different roles, different perspectives. Even with the animals I keep thinking, how can I, as a filmmaker look at the bodies in a sort of equal way? How can I find the ethics of the body.

With this film when I started I realize that if I go close to the characters, I could overexpose them and create this sort of caricature. And the opposite was also true. When the camera was far, I could give them the power of the body in the landscape. As far as I was I realized I was giving the characters more intimacy. So to discover this inverse relation between the bodies of the characters and the camera was very intriguing. It was so special to discover it. Historically in cinema, we tend to not show scenes that don’t add to the psychodrama of the characters. And in this film I tried to do the opposite. I tried to bring on screen things that are really part of our bodily experience. The wee-wee; we can never watch a man urinating in a scene. And so all of that was integrated to the film.

On The Film’s Explosive Sexuality

“When we went to shoot this scene and the horse came, he asked me, ‘But where is the prosthetic? And I said, ‘No no, this should be real!’”

When we think about cowboys, we create very rapid assumptions about the world of this macho cowboy. It’s almost mythological this idea of the cowboy. Specially in this region where I shot this film some cowboys, some men, don’t even have sex with their pregnant wife because they think the girls are in a moment where they are pure, sanctified, almost. So I tried to expand some notions. It is the woman that is taking control. So Iremar, who first thought could be gay, he has sex with a pregnant woman which is even more complex and in that moment, for me, the sex scene with the pregnant is not even proving anything. It doesn’t prove their sexual orientation. It’s not a heteronormative sex scene. She’s in control; she’s having pleasure. And to see a pregnant woman having pleasure and choice is very intriguing to all our macho culture. It’s funny, in all the Q&As the people ask about the actress and, What about her husband? Because the scene is long enough that it allows you to think about all these things. And then you go back to the scene, and then it becomes seductive, and erotic. But first, you go, Oh no! But nobody asks about the wife of the actor!

On How He Got His Actor To Shoot That Horse Scene

Aesthetically and politically, I tried to think how we can look to the animals to see their complexity. To see the hierarchy even between them, between horses and bulls, for example, there’s a huge hierarchy. And that also translates to the people who handle each. It was crucial to our aesthetic how to look to the animals. For example, Juliano who plays Iremar, when he read the script he was so obsessed with the scene with the pregnant woman that he forgot to ask me about the horse scene. When we went to shoot this scene he was there and the horse came and he asked me, “But where is the prosthetic?” And I said, “No no, this should be real!” And he was like, “No way! I’m a father! I have a wife. It’s impossible!” And I tried to convince him that it’s very important to the concept of the film, and its organicity. I want to see the horse’s cock on screen and it should be like this. “Fuck your concept!” he yelled at me. [Laughs]. So he agreed to do it only if I did it first. So I had to have my experience with the horse first!

And you know, for people involved in this world, getting horse semen is an everyday sort of thing. But for us, well, seeing a horse ejaculating is something, like wow, especially in our very macho culture. But the film deals in the borderline between naturalism and surrealism. Between something that could be very normal, but that the way the camera shows it, it can be very erotic. So it brings all these different kind of feelings together. Like with the pregnant woman scene. But then we are all part of the film; touched by the way they touch themselves.

Neon Bull plays at New Directors/New Films (March 25 and 26) and later opens theatrically at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on April 8, 2016.