By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
A documentarian making only his second narrative feature, writer-director Gabriel Mascaro invests the entrancing and upsetting Neon Bull with equal parts lived-in authenticity and dreamlike beauty. Neon Bull follows a surrogate family of cowhands and entertainers at the “Vaquejadas”, a particularly brutal Brazilian rodeo where bulls are brought down by their tails. The film quietly observes their dreary daily routines and occasional cloudbursts of fortune as they travel from town to town, sleeping in the same trailer pen used to transport the bulls. At the center of the microscopic amount of story that exists sits Iremar, a scruffy and calloused bull wrangler with a surprising sentimental streak, and a burning ambition to work in the clothing industry. Mascaro’s aesthetic is rigid (camera movements are terse and functional, and he rarely cuts within a sequence) in the mode of the European neo-miserables while also embracing a Lynch-ian weirdness, including any number of disturbingly sexual sequences involving humans and horses. In its nonjudgmental empathy for people living on the farthest fringes of society, its bleakly epic scope, its portrait of a world where everything and everyone is disposable, and in its sentimental nihilism, Neon Bull shares a fair amount of DNA with the films of New Hollywood. It’s a road movie to nowhere.