Monday 2 December 2019

On a Thousand Walls #21: Rasganço (2001)

I found very little written in English about Rasganço (French title Dechirure, English title variously Rending and The Rip). I mean, in Portugal it's an important movie, but I don't think we realise how insular we monoglot Anglophones are, and how little of the rest of the world we see, and how distorted the parts we do see are. I came across Rasganço at MotelX this year, where it was billed as one of the only Portuguese slasher movies.

In the interests of full disclosure, I also met its director, fellow jury member Raquel Freire, at MotelX. I didn’t get to see Rasganço on screen, but Raquel gave me an online screener, and one of the many lovely folks I met in Lisbon found me a DVD copy (because getting an import was about six times the cost of buying one in Portugal and getting it posted over, and you can't buy online in Portugal unless you're actually in Portugal), so I got to see it, and I’m glad I did.

There are spoilers in this post, as ever. This film includes several uncompromising and unromantic scenes of sexual violence against women, and so if watching that or reading about it would really ruin your week, do take caution.

It’s set in the university of Coimbra, which is, according to Wikipedia, the eighth oldest still-working university in the world. Really old universities have arcane customs and anachronistic practices, and Coimbra is no exception, with its formal uniform for students (note: facile comparisons to Hogwarts make more sense when you realise that JK Rowling apparently visited Coimbra during the writing of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) and its – real – ritual of rasganço (“rending” or “the Rip”), a sort of hazing where graduands of all sexes are mobbed by their peers in the university quad, and have their university dress literally torn from their bodies.

The film Rasganço begins with this, in fact. A young man, by his dress working class and not of the university witnesses the ritual, bemused. The man, Edgar (Ricardo Aibéo) has it explained to him by a student, Ana Rita (Ana Teresa Carvalhosa). They go for a walk. Mutual attraction leads to the beginning of an affair. He seems charming, straightforward; Ana Rita gets him into the university hostel. He realises that the manager of the hostel, Maria dos Anjos (Paula Marques) is strongly attracted to him when he hears her talking to herself about him. So he seduces her. Maria takes him to the principal of the university, the older, elegant Dr Zita Portugal (Isabel Ruth). She, too, quickly embarks on a sexual relationship with him, although in this case, sexually speaking, it is the woman who is the dominant partner.

Except that’s an illusion, because he’s using her just as much as the others to inveigle himself into the university. It doesn’t work, of course. He’s of the wrong class, came from the wrong school, never excelled enough academically to make the leap. Although Ana Rita tries to include him, he can’t get into student spaces. Dr. Zita finds him a succession of jobs; he can’t keep them. Maria gets him a uniform; it doesn’t change anything. He will never be one of these people, and he seethes with resentment.
He steals philosophy and law books, reads them voraciously. And then he abducts young women in broad daylight, blindfolds them, drags them to a cave, rapes them and carves messages to the university on their chests with a gutting knife, while reading tracts of philosophical and legal theory that seem to support what he’s doing (and it’s philosophical and legal theory written of course by men).

There’s no mystery in Rasganço; or at least there isn’t a mystery in any traditional sense. We never really find out who Edgar is, nor do we get to know what makes him tick other than a sense of rage and entitlement at being excluded from the privileged state of the students of Coimbra. He reminds me a little in his swagger and attitude of the mysterious stranger played by Terence Stamp in Pasolini’s Theorem (1968), and Rasganço itself feels a bit like Theorem, only with a more clear-eyed view (a woman’s view, in fact) of the consequences, to the damage that a satanically handsome and horny man can cause.
And in fact, one of the things I really liked about Rasganço was the way that it itself duplicates the way that the veil is pulled away as we gradually discover the truth about a dangerous, damaging personality. We’ve got no reason to dislike Edgar to begin with; we see only what he shows to Ana Rita. He is a romantic hero. And then we see him get in there with Maria and make his move on Dr. Zita, and now he’s a bit of a cad, a philanderer, a liar, an asshole. And then, as his attempts to insinuate himself into the life of the university are thwarted, he reveals himself as a stone-cold psychopath.

Edgar’s lack of luck in the class lottery is mirrored by his undeniable win in the gender stakes: he is a white, straight man. He is handsome, fit and saturnine. He is cocky and charming. He is a terrible serial rapist, careless and prone to risks. But then that’s because he doesn’t have to be good at it. He literally grabs a victim from behind her friends’ backs; no one notices.

The male representatives of the student body point fingers at an older professor who is conducting an affair with a student, and more or less lynch a gay fellow student. When Dr. Zita figures out that it’s Edgar – simply by paying attention – and goes to the authorities, they do nothing. They simply don’t believe her. The only authority figure worth anything is Ana's friend Inês (Ana Brandão), president of the student body – who incidentally is the gold standard for how you realistically and sympathetically represent a queer character in film – and Inês can't do anything because neither her own student body nor the university administration will find any sort of consensus on what to do.
Edgar is exactly the worst sort of person: the straight man driven by rage at all the injustices he faces (and they are real injustices, and the film doesn't hold back on that) who takes out his rage on people who don’t deserve to be his targets, and who doesn’t know what it’s like really to face the consequences of his actions. And precisely because he’s never really had to face consequences, he has no idea that it’s his escape from retribution that enables him to act on his fury.

When, at the end of the film, he’s gone like Terence Stamp in Theorem, leaving a trail of traumatised and mutilated young women, a fractured and terrified student body, Ana Rita pregnant, Maria dos Anjos embittered enough to be committing arson and Dr. Zita humiliated, it initially feels like we’re being cheated, but for a film that works so hard to be poetic and off-kilter, Rasganço is resolutely realistic. Campus rapists don’t often get caught. Young men who perform terrible crimes out of a feeling of having been wronged don’t understand how lucky they are not to be the ones to face consequences. The film shifts; it begins as a film about the routine injustices of class, and without ever ceasing to acknowledge them, becomes a deep, painful dive into the way that these injustices hurt women in a wider social context (and it's more or less impossible to ignore that in the shape of Dr. Zita, he's literally fucking Portugal). There are no easy solutions in Rasganço, just rage. This is how it is.