Were Anna Muylaert a man, she would be hailed in Brazil as the poster child for a new national cinema. Perhaps in the way that the Brazilian press anointed Walter Salles after Central Station or Fernando Meirelles after City of God with the status of messiah for having seduced the European and American cine-establishments. Yet the success of Muylaert’s films, which reject both the populist tropes of vapid entertainment and the impenetrability of art cinema, has been met with a series of sexist episodes played out in social media and a widespread belittlement of her authorial function. If the Brazilian press is quick to find a white male’s face to slap cultural achievement on, it seems just as quick to dilute the weight of a filmmaker’s hand in a project when she’s not just female, but a female who indicts her own culture and gets Oscar buzz for it.
Muylaert’s films are the cinema that Brazil needs and the one that it deserves: polished, pragmatic, and perversely pedagogic. Her narratives, deceivingly facile versions of Julio García Espinosa’s “imperfect cinema” for Brazil’s post-Lula neofascist era, are safe enough for dangerous ideas. If in The Second Mother she served a platter of mirrors for the Brazilian bourgeoisie to munch as hors d’oeuvres, with Don’t Call Me Son, which won the Männer Magazin Readers’ Jury Award at this year’s Berlinale, she rummages through what lies behind the looking glass.
Utilizing cross-dressing as a metaphor for the general queerness of kinship (a son in practice never coincides with a son in theory), the film is bound to create discomfort, if not revolt, in the country that most murders trans people in the world, and most searches for “shemale” on Redtube. In Berlin, however, it was warmly received and a sequence where Pierre (Naomi Nero) asserts his fierceness unabashedly for the first time inspired appluse.
More than a great queer film, Don’t Call Me Son is a great career move for Muylaert, who broke all sorts of box-office records with her previous work, and who subsequently chose to err on the side of artistic honesty than profitable resignation. Inspired by a real-life event involving the abduction of a little boy in Brasília, the film follows the trajectory of teenage Pierre’s queerness, from being comfortably administered in his working-class home (he wears bright nail polish and no one cares) to gaining monstrous status when he’s forced to live with his bourgeois biological parents.
Once Pierre’s mother is arrested for having stolen him as a child, he learns to wield his queerness as a method of survival, as an existential claim and a scream. Instead of safely tucking away his fondness of garter belts and other feminine attire in the privacy of locked bathrooms, he now demands that his “new” biological parents buy him a dress instead of the preppy polo shirts they try to shove down his throat. Having no verbal resources to defend himself from such unmooring circumstances (filiation is exposed as a naturalized coup de theatre), he resorts to that which we know best and try to repress the most: unvarnished desire.
Much like Muylaert, his provocations are devoid of any adolescent gratuitousness, even if that’s precisely how his biological parents will choose to categorize them as. They simply articulate the unsayable sartorially, and not without reflecting some kind of original violence for which he’s surely not responsible. In an uncanny casting move, both of Pierre’s mothers are played by the magnificent Daniela Nefussi, who embodies the true conceptual anchor of Don’t Call Me Son to perfection, wearing the vicious hypocrisy of Brazil’s bourgeoisie and the carefree decency of its working class in the vicinity of her face. Here the rich mother smiles and smothers, while the poor one who stole is the one who loved.
Berlinale ran from February 11—21.