Stately, earthy, graphic, riveting: Gabriel Mascaro's Neon Bull is one of those art-house studies that plops the camera down someplace far from us and, in exquisite long takes, examines the lives that almost seem to just be happening there anyway. No matter how rigorously worked out each shot and its action might be, Neon Bull always honors the chaotic looseness of everyday living — the way that, unlike in the movies, few of the moments we inhabit seem to be about just one thing.
The characters — a makeshift family that travels northeast Brazil handling white bulls for the Vaquejadas rodeos — spill in and out of the frame as they crab at and ignore one another, each an island whose desires only occasionally overlap with anyone else's. They're revealed to us slowly, in observational scenes: Vaqueiro Iremar (Juliano Cazarré) hustles bulls into their pens but dreams of fashion design, an ambition spurred by the colossal clothing factories that have recently come to dominate his region. He spends the film working on a new striptease getup for Galega (Maeve Jinkings), who performs in rodeo tents, bathed in flickering red light and wearing a horse-head mask. Galega cares for daughter Cacá (Aline Santana), an adolescent who dreams of one day owning a real horse, a fantasy that hard-bitten Galega dismisses as impossible — she can barely afford to buy G-strings from the peddler in the mall parking lot. Iremar, a dreamer himself, won't rule it out, as he engages in a dopey scheme to jack off a prize stud for its semen.
Without really noticing one another, these characters are mired in a roundelay of yearning and disappointment, of lives shaped by the peddling of animals and people, of the commodification of sex itself. To get a glimpse of the banks of sewing machines inside one of those factories, Iremar arranges a hook-up with a pregnant security guard who has taken a shine to him. The ensuing sex scene is a cinematic rarity: a tender, extended, no-nonsense, single-take coupling, the lovers starting out clothed and flirting and winding up, in real time, spent and sated. Mascaro's camera observes this with the same matter-of-fact frankness with which it captures the branding of livestock, the tail-tugging arena battles between rodeo riders and Iremar's bulls or the alien presence of modern factories on this rugged landscape.
The film is almost always beautiful, sometimes dabbed with surrealism: The neon bull of the title is painted by Iremar's crew and goaded into the arena at midnight, a lime-Jello streak brought down with brute efficiency by a pair of cowboys. But the central image might be sweaty, shirtless men jouncing in the back of a truck with young Cacá as Galega drives to the next fairgrounds. They're moving through space and through time, but nothing much changes for them, and by the end the film is aching with this question: Is anyone getting anywhere?