(Portugal 2019; Dir: Pedro Neves Marques)

The Bite

Nervous anticipations

review by Līga Požarska

The Bite

original title: A Mordida

length: 25

year of production: 2019

country of production: Portugal

director: Pedro Neves Marques

production: Pedro Neves Marques, Catarina de Sousa

director of photography: Marta Simões

music: HAUT

cast: Ana Flávia Cavalcanti, Alina Dorzbacher, Kelner Macedo

festivals: Vienna Shorts 2020, Go Short 2020, Short Waves Festival 2020, Glasgow Short Film Festival 2020, Encounters 2020

© images: The Bite (Pedro Neves Marques)

Pedro Neves Marques’ 16-mm film ‘The Bite’ covers a lot of ground: (bio)politics, gene engineering, pandemics, sexuality, ecology and extractivism. Essentially, it all boils down to tension, intensified by its original score – jittery, pulsating, suspicious.

We meet a transgender woman named Tao, cisgender woman Calixto and the biologist Helmut – all of them involved in a non-binary relationship with each other. The plot unfolds simultaneously in a forest house (inhabited by both women) and in a lab near São Paulo. In this lab Helmut and his colleague are experimenting with genetically engineered mosquitoes. Releasing them into nature could potentially stop the Zika virus, carried out by infected mosquitoes. In Brazil, the spread of Zika marked the years 2015 and 2016. Marques doesn’t identify the virus, yet the similarities are obvious.

Up-and-coming cinematographer Marta Simões’ images are hypnotic. Dominated by different shades of white (the lab) and green (outside of the lab) they remind us of a floral oasis artificially planted in a secluded glass vase. This metaphor is equally applicable to the portrayed world in this film: even though ‘The Bite’ touches upon relevant current socio-political issues, the heroes seem to live as far as they can from the real world. In a vacuum.

THIS SIDE OF THE NET

This (in)side of the (anti-mosquito) net is meant to protect. Both Tao & Calixto’s house and the lab fall into this category. However, this “inside” turns out to be a place for discomfort and bad presentiments.

The physical net is the prime warning sign, serving as a brittle wall, promising a fragile shelter from the outer world, which is weakened by the epidemic. Through it, and with a frozen gaze, Tao observes a snuck-in mosquito. The insect is banging against a jade green wall, enhancing nervousness and suspense for both her and the viewer.

Fear increases when Calixto gets bitten, more so when we learn that the couple (or the throuple) might be expecting, as Tao is reading about embryos development. Zika is dangerous for expecting women, causing serious complications, one of them being incomplete brain development (in which the child is born with a smaller head). Brazil’s health system is still dealing with so-called Zika babies and treating their neurological disabilities. Yet, anti-abortion laws remain and women need to proceed with the pregnancy, even if they’ve been diagnosed with the virus.

Meanwhile, Helmut’s colleague refers to the epidemic as “this unstoppable thing”, pointing out that they’ve been working on an antidote for years. Anxiety lies in hopelessness which is why Helmut uses a physical net as a shield. The protective clothing allows the scientist to release the transgenic mosquitos into the wild threat free. Nonetheless, unease never disappears.

This ever-present tension escalates in the closing sequence when the threesome – Calixto, Tao and Helmut – engage into a sexual act. Despite the assumed safety “this side of the net” should provide, their bodies seem to struggle to come closer together, acting stiff and avoidant of certain kind of caresses. Contemporary Brazil’s face might be pulsating in the back of their brains? They want to be sexually liberated and pleased, but it looks as if they are taking two steps closer to each other and then retracting one — especially so for Calixto and Helmut.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE NET

Virus scare is solely the visible layer of the onion. Neves Marques dives deeper, making “the other side” an unstable and worrying place to be.

Nature itself feels menacing. Relatively long screen time is given to emphasise the water source and the dark, unwelcoming forest. Water can be a potential breeding nest for mosquitos, as they prefer to lay their eggs in stagnant liquid, whereas the surrounding forest suggests that someone is hiding there — marked specifically by Marques’ long and focused zoom-ins. When Tao goes for a swim, the camera is placed behind the trees imitating a voyeuristic gaze of a predator, who’s waiting for the right moment to attack. The feeling that someone’s (been) watching never leaves us. Additionally there’s a rather long car sequence reminiscing a stereotypical horror film scene — usually nothing good comes out of a twilight ride into the woods.

Distress about the “outside-of-the-net” world is growing, when Calixto evaluates the situation in São Paulo as bad – the military forces are everywhere. “Now we have this monster taking over the country,” one of the scientists' states. Why monster? Because harmful politics and biopolitics are comparable to pandemics as they both demand complete control over every aspect of an individual’s health, free will and movement.

The resemblance between the world created in the film and today’s Brazil is inevitable. Brazil’s complex socio-political situation has worsened tremendously under the reign of extreme right president Jair Bolsonaro, who has also proudly claimed himself to be a homophobe. Even in a secluded house, the principal trio cannot unwind to a full extent, knowing that their passion, freedom and body expression are suppressed by an anti-democratic sentiment.

On top of that, trans people in Brazil are common victims of hate crimes and murders. Journalist Oscar Lopez writes that Brazil “regularly ranks as the deadliest country worldwide for trans* people” and that the social prejudice has worsened under Bolsonaro’s presidency, who publicly speaks against “progressive ideas on sex and gender”. This topic gained extra attention after the release of J.K. Rowling’s new book ‘Troubled Blood’ (written under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith), which tells a story about a transvestite serial killer. Rowling’s freshest novel received backlash and accusations of transphobia, that had British trans activist Paris Lees tweeting: “Meanwhile over in the real world the number of trans people killed in Brazil has risen by 70% this past year, young trans women are left to burn in cars and men who kill us (for being trans) are pardoned and sent home.”

TOXIC DOMINATIONS

‘The Bite’ reflects on poisonous masculinity as a destructive force. After all, it’s the male mosquito who is injected with the lethal gene — a (supposed) guarantee that the female it will mate with won’t carry a living offspring. Gene engineering helps to eliminate undesirable characteristics (such as females carrying the virus) and can be interpreted as an attempt to control and homogenize the entire population. This draws strong parallels with policies and technologies that are affecting the demography and reproduction increasingly. Said manipulations determine our next generations of humans, plants & animals, interfering with nature’s way of taking care of that. Tao, as a transgender character, serves as a protest against this categorization and homogenization.

Tao is the most dominant of them all, but doesn’t use this trait for control. Helmut, however, tries to catalyse some minor disturbance in their dynamics. When the cisgender male joins the couple, their balance shifts, thickening the tension. Calixto seems to be more comfortable with Tao, sometimes leaving Helmut behind on the edge of the bed.

Helmut’s views on warfare are linked to this toxic domination, as he states that it’s not enough to only send soldiers when invading another country. “You send soldiers, tanks, aeroplanes, bombs.” The epidemic compares to a violent invasion, suggesting that the human and moral factors are inexistent.

‘The Bite’ has set the alarm bells ringing on the ecological crises. Mosquitos are a blood-sucking parasite and so is extractivism. Marques’ film points out the ecological issues and land destruction caused by it: in South America extractivism has harmed the ecosystem and local farmers. Another kind of dominance, putting one’s needs above others.

The film highlights different shades of tension, varying from nervousness to fear, aggression to hopelessness. While dealing with hybrids, ‘The Bite’ turns out to be hybrid too. This special world constructed by Neves Marques highlights the director’s capability to create magical and terrifying universes, filled with codes, secrets and hidden messages about some of the most relevant issues today. He has managed to cross-reference politics and body politics, reproduction and pandemics, ultimately creating an opiate juxtaposition between a warning dystopia and a dangerous reality.