The Brazilian horror-thriller offers a harrowing depiction of the role religious institutions can play in women’s oppression.
Within the conservative evangelical world, there is a growing movement of people who have stepped away from the faith in response to lived experiences. These so-called “exvangelicals” run the gamut of people who leave Christianity entirely to people who have redefined the parameters of what their belief can hold. The latter seems to be the more challenging to those who are still in the evangelical fold, as those who still claim some faith but question the specifics of their doctrine are seen as heretical rather than as simply having fallen away.
This experience and phenomenon is central to Raquel 1:1, a Brazilian horror-thriller that premiered at SXSW this year. It is a bold indictment against inflexible faith in all circumstances, and is also a cultural discussion that addresses a specific concern of its place of origin. As such, aspects of it will be all too familiar with those who have brushed against American evangelicalism, but its perspective and tone is unique enough to draw the viewer into a harrowing vision and discussion of another country, one that is currently in the grips of a significant religious and cultural schism.
The titular Raquel (Valentina Herszage in a riveting lead performance) is a young woman who has just moved to her father Hermes (Emilio de Mello)’s small rural hometown after the mysterious and haunting death of Raquel’s mother. While Hermes is not an active believer, Raquel’s mother was, and in response to her death, Raquel has found herself retreating to faith as a means of sorting through her grief. Reaching out to the local church, Raquel soon makes friends with other young members of the congregation, namely quiet but thoughtful Laura (Eduarda Samara) and the daughter of the head of the church, Ana Helena (Priscila Bittencourt).
By fully committing herself to her local church, Raquel dives deep into traditional evangelical practices, specifically deep study of the Bible. But she is soon confronted with a crisis of faith when the role of women in the Bible consistently seems to be of a lesser stature. Talk of submission and the inherent vice of women’s existence keeps popping out to her until she finally voices her concern with her small study group: perhaps the Bible, written exclusively by men, is due for a new revision.
This goes over about as well as one might imagine, but a small group of girls follow and Raquel do start to pick apart scripture, isolating the troubling verses and having a dialogue about what they might mean. But as they keep prodding, and Raquel keeps asking probing questions, more and more members peel away, seeing Raquel as less of a prophet and more of a heretic. Both the church and Hermes beg her to give up her quest, but she is unmoved; she starts to have visions, hearing voices that push her deeper into her study. As she states clearly, she believes in and loves God, which is why the Bible in its current state seems to be an imperfect reflection of the divine.
All of this story is told in long stretches of quiet, contemplative observation of human behavior, underscored with music that ratchets up the tension. For a good portion of Raquel 1:1’s run time, the movie moves along leisurely but confidently, not concerned with having explosive scares, but rather with the quiet dread of wondering what the neighbors are whispering. Beneath the surface of it all, systems of oppression that systemically harm women constantly boil over, an ongoing issue of concern in Brazil.
To this end, Raquel 1:1 stands as a polemic against any belief structure that allows men to do harm with no repercussions and shows how being silent is its own form of violence. The final act of Raquel shifts in tone dramatically as the unspoken becomes more apparent and explicit, though still remains behind the same quietness that marked the unnerving earlier portions. Supernatural forces appear to enter the scene, and what precisely is happening may be obscured, but what becomes clear is the steps taken towards justice.
Similar to Midsommar, another film that addresses harm done towards women and alternative systems of societal structure, Raquel 1:1’s final moments will prove to be divisive and potentially difficult to interpret. They provide little in terms of explicit instruction to the audience for reasonable or actionable steps towards reconciliation, but instead opt for fury and outrage in the eye of the storm. The film does not provide a path forward towards a better, safer world for women in Brazil so much as cry out as a primal scream that something must change by any means available to us. And those methods of change can sometimes be destructive.