Ecstasy (2020)

The mission of this blog is to spot missing links between the reviews of Latin American films and their textual body. In order to speak of Moara Passoni’s Ectasy, I will skew heavily on the gender debate given how all the reviews I have found to date are written by men, regarding a film centered around eating disorders, an issue that according to this scientific article only affects 10–25% of the male population. Meanwhile, data shows that men comprise 65% and women 35% of all film reviewers. Ignoring this information while trying to contextualize this film’s reviews would be dishonest at best.

If the filmmaker seems laudably committed to the subjective perspective in this feature hybrid, should the reviewer follow suit, or perhaps deepen our grasp of the film? It will serve us to stay aware of how these male reviewers situate such a hard to categorize film, and more interestingly, to question what level of legitimacy we are willing to invest in their reviews. Lest we forget that the distribution market is gauging the budding film’s viability by its critical responses, and one day, streamers will use them too to float this film’s algorithmic prestige up or down.

This film picks up on the literary trend of auto-fiction by using the device of an alter ego of the director, Clara, to bring us to relate to the eponymous anorexia induced ecstasy, though that identification is only inferred, never explicit. The patchwork structure of the edit gives us a seamless temporality where the girl and the adult woman collide and expand, giving us an ample view of the physicality of the eating disorder and its intricate procedurals. Without any blatant blaming or victimization, without even flaunting feminine mystique — no small feat, the tone remains acutely observant and the relationship with the protagonist’s mother is poignantly rendered in oblique interactions where the sentient body is always joining the conversation. Spatiality too plays a starring role in helping us inhabit the psychological landscape of the protagonist, strongly rendered by cinematographer Janice D’Ávila in angular compositions that facilitate a certain vertigo.

In his review for Screendaily, Jonathan Romney scratches the surface of historicizing the film with mentions of the “turbulent recent history of Brazil” and “daughter of a congresswoman who takes up her official position in capital city Brasilia — a situation established after a montage of still photos and archive footage shows popular protest and unrest, and brutal response by the Brazilian police.”

The fact that the filmmaker keeps these events as a backdrop shouldn’t necessarily exempt Romney from trying to unpack how its echoes resonate upon the plight of the protagonist. Is it an oversized expectation to want the reviewer to anchor his or her (but mostly his, as we saw above) reading in the meta-textual blanks? As a fellow Brazilian of Passoni’s generation, I found it hard to ignore the generalization and vacancy of curiosity into the geo-political conflicts that necessitated a swiftly built Brasilia, and what international interests might have motivated or turned a blind eye to police brutality in Brazil. Granted, this is not a Political Science journal but Screendaily. Yet, not even putting a temporal frame around “recent” just strikes me as lacking journalistic protocol.

Romney also mentions a graphic device used by Passoni: “Also recurrent is a superimposed image of a blue dot, relating to Clara’s anorexia and her search for bodily and mental control.” Indeed the growing blue dot is a stratagem employed by Clara to cheat on hunger, but shouldn’t this chromatic choice entice deeper probing? While it might be impossible to form unequivocal answers for that color choice without interviewing Passoni, I can risk my own reading of how blue is the color that defines baby boys in maternity wards. It is featured in the film as the device that beats hunger into submission by occupying increasingly larger portions of the protagonist’s field of vision. Blue is coded dominance here, not a mere descriptive as per Romney’s mention.

But the cake goes to Pat Mullen from Point of View Magazine for titling his review “A Fragmented Tango of Ideas and Desires,” because the fastest way to a Brazilian heart is to be carelessly roped in with an Argentine art form.

He goes on to state that “Passoni recalls the experience of struggling with an eating disorder in voiceover.” The filmmaker mentions pathology in the text of the film without getting lost in its throes. The diagnosing can happen in our minds as we connect cause and consequence, but the merit of the film resides precisely in how it evokes responses, from us, to images of calculated ethereality. Look no further than the ton-sur-ton chromatism, foggy, soft contours, creating ghostly presences, instructing us about an unspoken desire for disappearance, only phrased as weightlessness, never as self-effacement. We are left to ponder what a weightless body would look like as it moves in our gravitational world. Hence Mullen’s comment seem didactic where no instruction is necessary, we are all intellectually aware of how disruptive eating disorders are. Then he proceeds with the statement below:

“While Ecstasy ambitiously creates a cinematic language to articulate complex and conflicting feelings, it never quite gels overall. There are simply too many tangents, asides, fragments, and shards. One drowns in the flood of images that dilute the core dilemma of the young woman’s pain. The sensory overload nevertheless affords some insight into Clara’s headspace, which provides a troubling experience, to say the least.”

Diagnosis: Casual, acute opinionitis.

“Some insight” not followed by a quantification or pointing to which insight perhaps reveals the reviewer’s own inability to inhabit a headspace other than his own, he instead dismisses the filmmaker’s efforts as insufficient in raising his interest into this female psyche, or just Otherness in general, even historical, given this review bears no mention of the national underpinnings in the body of the film.

Writing for Film Threat, Ray Lobo chimes in:

“While on the ground, her eyes remain open, staring blankly, as if she is outside of her body, possibly caught in a runner’s high that makes her lose touch with the world around her. Perhaps the woman is experiencing an ecstatic moment.”

I’m not sure how he means “Perhaps” given that the sentiment of ecstasy is explicit in the voice over as well as the movie title, briskly co-opting the filmmaker’s assertion as his insight. Beyond that why did Lobo stop short of mentioning how this shot beckons an awareness of our implication? As spectators, we don’t get a chance to avert the gaze of an ecstatic, pale, fading woman. Instead he reads into the shot, scrambling for findings. John Berger’s Ways of Seeing draws a line between the naked and the nude, where the latter includes an awareness of being seen. This theoretical framing serves us a great deal in processing Passoni’s film, to the extent that we are often invited to question where her protagonist’s stance place us in the conversation, as impotent witnesses to a deeply personal process. Is it seemingly so outside these reviewers possibilities to merely bear witness? Is signification of the images so reliant on their gaze?

One of the most riveting merits of the film, in my view, is that the responsibility for such severity, as it plays out in an eating disorder, rests squarely on the subject’s shoulders, and the filmmaker abuts a head on, demagogic approach to the topic of patriarchally enforced ideals of feminine beauty. She also skillfully includes the specificity of that maternal bond without condemning the parent. In brief, reminding us how subjectivation processes are infinitely plastic, and molded out of contextual clay, but not necessarily determined exclusively by it.

“For Passoni, the anorexia of her youth was an interrelated experience tying her physical body to the abstract body politic.” This is a perceptive formulation by Lobo, which would have been even better placed in the context of Clara getting kicked out of school for kissing a girl albeit accidentally. It is the nun’s who problematize the accidental kiss, not the participants.

Lobo returns us to the issue of how male presence informs some of the forces at play here, by rightfully acknowledging the evocative nature of Passoni’s aesthetics, which never shies away from implicating us viewers of whatever gender:

“Ecstasy brought to mind one of Matteo Garrone’s early works, First Love (Primo Amore). In that film, the lead character transfers his obsessive psychopathology onto his girlfriend and makes her lose a lot of weight. This experimental cinematic undertaking may be an even more frightening depiction of anorexia because the anorexia is not exacted from some figure on the outside. It is imposed from the inside as a refusal against outside demands that demand conformity. That makes the anorexia depicted here all the more problematic and all the more tragic.”

One last oversight, I’d like to touch on is how all the reviews talk of the menstrual blood and cycle disruptions caused by anorexia, but none of the reviewers hark back to how that passage into womanhood and away from childhood, signaled by the onset of the menses, also renders women an object of male interest and quantification. None of these reviewers mention the self-abjection comment Clara makes regarding her growing breasts, a bump, an obtrusive presence. Unlike periods, invisible to the public eye, breasts broadcasts that body as womanly, plummeting it into the category of ready-for-male-consumption, right until expiration date, when through force of gravity, aging or maternity, their breasts downturn will bring the woman back into the invisibility the protagonist claims to aspire to, that promise of boundless freedom as tenuous as her facial skin against the jagged asphalt of the poster image, creating callousness as women fall and rise from a terrain laid not by them.

As part of my research in transnational reception this blog will focus on what mainstream reviewers misapprehend or miss about Latin American cinema.

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