“He’s a nice kid, a pretty kid too. I don’t know, I got a problem: Should I fuck him or fight him?” said Robert DeNiro’s Jack LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980). That boxer’s braggadocio exposed the homophobia of LaMotta’s Italian-American macho pals. The startling boast—delivered by DeNiro with perfect urban realness—touched on homophobic panic as well as bisexual curiosity. Both panic and curiosity define the new Brazilian film Neon Bull. Not a boxing drama, it studies another sport: the workaday and after work routines of Iremar, a rodeo assistant—a vaquejada—played by Juliano Cazarre.
Cazarre has the brooding, bearded, dark-haired, swarthiness of a Latino porn star. As Iremar, he’s a muscular, thick-shouldered, alpha male whose intense dedication to handling rodeo bulls (dusting their tails with dirt so that wranglers can wrestle them to the grounds of the arena) makes him a dangerous-looking enigma from society’s lower depths. Director-writer Gabriel Mascaro uses Cazarre’s erotic mystery as the basis for observing Brazil’s impoverished class and its earthy sexual subculture.
During off-hours, Iremar designs the skimpy costumes of female pole-dancers. However, this is not a drag world celebration like Brazil’s remarkable Madame Sata (2002); everything about Iremar suggests the opposite of a dressmaker stereotype. Behind the brutish brooding, he’s a meticulous aesthete. But Mascaro is less interested in quirks of masculinity, such as the way men can be both feminine and macho, than in the oddities, crudeness—the animal-like stink—of the lower classes. Bennett Miller displayed some of this same class snobbery in his repulsive wrestling movie Foxcatcher (2014), but Mascaro is a more imaginative filmmaker; his lighting schemes and color coordination in Brazil’s sunny wastelands and dark stripper clubs are quite fastidious and arty.
These settings allow Mascaro to mix fascination with gender identity into an obsession with the uninhibited sexual habits of primitive people. (What would Mascaro make of an elegant heterosexual Euro-stud like Oleg Cassini?) Neon Bull half-heartedly equates poverty with queerness. Irema’s coworkers are sexually shameless—as in an all-male shower scene. They’re the vulgar underclass: lusty, thieving, violent, wallowing in dung, dirt and semen. Just when you anticipate that the emphasis on Cazarre/Irema will reward a gay viewer’s enticement, there’s a highly stylized—totally heterosexual—climax where Irema mounts a bulgingly pregnant woman. It makes you wonder: Is this about Hispanic ease with sexual expression where masculine erotic appeal blurs into pansexuality? Or is it just a tease? Probably it’s the latter, given the centerpiece scene where Irema and rodeo colleagues masturbate a horse’s fully aroused penis.
Neon Bull works strangely and frustratingly—like a gay-for-pay art-movie hiding behind sociological pretense. The scene where Iremar takes a co-worker’s porn magazine (its pages glued together with jism) and uses the naked female photos to sketch his own bikini designs, is blatantly homo prurient. Neon Bull doesn’t move viewers toward political consciousness about either animal cruelty or human tenderness. Iremar and his disadvantaged cohorts rouse fascination about beasts (mammals), not human beings or citizens.
Mascaro’s pseudo-sociology recalls that moment in the early days of 1980s cable TV when Turkish mud-wrestlers (whose oiled-up torsos also resemble Cazarre’s dark-haired girthiness) became gay-viewers’ favorite exotica. Neon Bull is not Neo-Realism that discovers the struggle for human dignity. Its echoes of John Travolta’s Urban Cowboy (by gay director James Bridges, a subject for further study) prove Neon Bull’s sexual and social confusion. As per DeNiro’s LaMotta, Mascaro has a problem: He doesn’t know whether to fight against Irema’s underprivileged hotness or fuck it.
Watch the trailer for Neon Bull: