(Brazil 2020; Dir: Lillah Halla)

Menarca

When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.

review by Bo Alfaro Decreton

Menarca

original title: Menarche

length: 22

year of production: 2020

country of production: Brazil

director: Lillah Halla

production: Gustavo Aguiar, Renata Miyazaki

director of photography: Wilssa Esser

editing: Eva Randolph

sound: Ruben Valdés

music: Karina Buhr, Zé Nigro

cast: Aldo Bueno, Amanda Dourado, Amanda Yamamoto, Dinho Lima Flor, Micheline Lemos, Nathally Fonseca

festivals: Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur 2020, Festival du nouvea cinéma (FNC) 2020, Semaine de la Critique 2020

© images: 'Menarca' (Lillah Halla)

When a mysterious creature is captured by local fishermen in a Brazilian village infested with piranhas, Nanã’s encounter with it soon evolves into fraternization. As one of the men tries to free the creature from the nets to uncover its gender, he must bear immediate consequences of this unsolicited and disgusting action, as the hybrid beast bites off a finger in defence. The man doesn’t learn, forcing Nanã and Mel to not only protect the piranha-woman called Baubo but also themselves against a seemingly inescapable violence surrounding them. In an attempt to prevent Baubo’s tragic fate, Nanã consults it. As she listens to the underbelly of nature, she accepts knowledge that is not strictly anthropocentric.

‘Menarca’ refers to menarche: a woman’s first menstrual cycle which announces her sexual maturity. Wilsaa Esser’s fluid cinematography allows early mornings to symbolise this ritual transition — the dawn of female adulthood. The hopeful daybreak, however, soon changes into a pitch-black night in which men’s surging aggression peaks. Nanã courageously resists this hostile context tightening around her and other female companions. The idea of breaking free from the strangling corset that is a toxic masculine environment also nurtures thoughts of resistance against the mismanagement of Bolsonaro (& other right-wing leaders), whom this Brazilian-Italian director for sure must be familiar with.

Lillah Halla’s third short film opens under water, below sea level, a place that over decades has become the victim of relentless pollution and the great loss of biodiversity. There are plenty of parallels to be drawn between the way humankind treats (the rights of) women and (the rights of) nature. Would we be more pro-active in saving the planet if we labelled her Father Earth instead? This notion never runs in the foreground of Halla’s film, but she makes it sufficiently tangible to allow ‘Menarca’ to be grounded in some ecocritique nonetheless.

Due to its caustic nature, it’s rather difficult, maybe even impossible, to represent the notion of the “vagina dentata” (“toothed vagina”) in a subtle way. Halla uses this symbol for fear of castration as a catalyst; a daring move that comes not only with merits but also implies loss of its inherent asperity, as it fails to surmount reality’s complexity. Though the act of biting provides an instant impact, digestion is what ultimately matters most.

In "(In) Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself" (*) Polish poet and essayist Wislawa Szymborska concludes that when piranhas attack, they feel no shame. The same applies to buzzards, panthers, snakes, jackals, lions and orcas. The animal kingdom is granted exemption across the board when it comes down to the question of guilt, an idea even more striking when you know that sexually active women are denigratingly called ‘piranhas’ in Brazilian Portuguese in the context of omnipresent slut-shaming.

Szymborska’s fate for human species is therefore straightforward and unambiguous: "On this third planet of the sun / among the signs of bestiality / a clear conscience is Number One." Guilt is what makes human beings human, a concept partly left without evidence in ‘Menerca’, in which responsibility is replaced by revenge instead. In this vengeance Halla gives way to a generous portion of well-founded disobedience from Nanã’s side, which is also this fantasy drama’s greatest strength: underlining thoughtful agency as an effective antidote to a toxic macho culture.

(1)
In Praise of Feeling Bad about Yourself

The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn’t know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they’d claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn’t understand remorse.
Lions and lice don’t waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they’re right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they’re light.

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

(Excerpt From: Wislawa Szymborska. “Poems New and Collected." iBooks)