When it comes to horror sub-genres, I’d have to rank rape-revenge films as an area quite outside of my expertise. As a survivor of multiple sexual assaults, I tend to be a little pickier when it comes to depictions of the same on-screen. As such, I can’t say that I’ve seen a vast number of rape-revenge films in my life.
I’m 1000% certain that I am not alone in this.
I don’t envy the filmmakers who are trying to tell these stories the way that they should be told. Shooting a rape scene (not to mention the aftermath) sensitively and compassionately is complicated. There is the risk of being exploitative. There is the risk of promoting identification with the perpetrator rather than the victim, wittingly or unwittingly. There is the risk of diminishing the pain and gravity of the subject matter. (For an excellent and thoughtful discussion of these themes, I highly recommend that you check out this fascinating episode of the now-sadly-defunct Rue Morgue Podcast: host Stuart ‘Feedback’ Andrews and Faculty of Horror co-host Andrea Subisatti compare and contrast the original 1978 I Spit on Your Grave and the 2010 remake. A follow-up episode addresses comments made about the first episode and analyzes two additional films, Savage Vengeance (1993) and Naked Vengeance (1985). Both episodes are required texts for the topic of rape-revenge films.)
I’d heard a lot of buzz about Natalia Leite’s rape vigilante film M.F.A. (2017) over the past year, including praise from people whom I respect and trust. When Rue Morgue announced that they were screening the film as part of their CineMacabre film series in Toronto, I bought my ticket with apprehension and mixed feelings.
I am so extraordinarily thankful that I did.
Having a rape-revenge story in the hands of women is a revelation. Based on a script by Leah McKendrick, M.F.A. centres on a young painter currently working toward a degree in Fine Arts. Shy, quiet, and reserved in both her social life and in her painting, Noelle is struggling to assert and express herself. When Luke, an attractive classmate, invites her to a house party, she is thrilled, but the date becomes horrific when their burgeoning connection turns suddenly and tragically violent. Luke rapes Noelle in a brief and very realistic scene that perfectly captures the accompanying shock, humiliation, trauma, and disbelief. In the aftermath of the assault, Noelle attempts to find justice via various authorities but is stymied in her efforts by the pervasive effects of rape culture. Eventually, while confronting her rapist herself, she stumbles upon a drastic and extraordinarily satisfying solution. That’s as much as I’m willing to say about the plot because I firmly believe that you should see the film for yourself. (Unless you’re at risk of being re-traumatized. In that case, please take care of yourself.)
M.F.A. premiered around the same time that the initial allegations against rapist, predator, and movie producer Harvey Weinstein first hit the mainstream. The timing is exquisite; M.F.A. is a perfect film for the age of #MeToo, addressing as it does the many facets of rape culture — from reactive rape prevention ideologies, to ineffective and apathetic administrative responses to campus sexual assault, to rampant victim-blaming and online harassment.
One thing that I especially appreciated about the film is its approach to nudity. There are several nude scenes throughout the film, but none are the result of coercion or assault — or in the sexual service of a male at all. The female nudity that appears on film is always freely and autonomously chosen by the woman herself, in situations that are tied to artistic expression. This has the welcome effect of making the nudity empowering and beautiful, rather than traumatic, which in the context of a rape-revenge film is rather remarkable.
While each of the performances in the film is strong, Francesca Eastwood is the film’s steel spine, its beating heart, and its avenging angel. Writer Leah McKendrick turns in a fine performance as Noelle’s neighbour Skye, and the relationship between the two women is deeply nuanced, tender, and affirming. The sensitive and honest portrayal of their relationship alone hammers home the need for more female storytellers.
M.F.A. is available on both Blu-ray and DVD.
Score: 9 out of 10 coats of paint.