“Desires of the Flesh”: Catholicism and the duality of sexual attraction

Kaina Dominguez interviews Rafaela Camelo, writer/director of the Brazilian short Desires of the Flesh

Desires of the Flesh is one of the most magnetic shorts I’ve seen in 2019. It effortlessly pulls the viewer into the world of queer adolescence and the unwieldy nature of desire by telling a story about two teenage girls with a strong attraction to each other. That attraction is complicated by an equally strong repulsion stemming from their Christian guilt, and further challenged by the normal turbulence of adolescence.

Set in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, and written and directed by Rafaela Camelo, the inspiration for Desires of the Flesh came in 2016 when Pope Francis allowed women to take part in the washing of the feet ceremony. Despite being influenced by Catholic mythology and Biblical stories, its symbolism evokes a modern quirkiness through the awkward beauty of youthful attraction and relentless obsession. The blood that represents life itself, the body of Christ, and the holy water, among other metaphors in the film, create a visceral, unsettling experience for viewers.

Although I wasn’t raised religious and or in the Catholic community, I still related to the story because, like the main characters, I grew up in Latin America and I am queer. I understand how important it is for other Latinos to hold on to their beliefs and religious values, in spite of their inner conflict about them.

Because I connected with Desires of the Flesh so strongly, I felt inspired to talk to Rafaela about how she managed to shoot this queer film in a Catholic church, about some of her behind-the-scenes decisions, and about how she packed all of the symbolism into her uniquely Latin American story, which plays in July at OutFest in Los Angeles.   

The poster for the short film Desires of the Flesh

The poster for Desires of the Flesh

Kaina Dominguez: The the film’s symbolism caught my eye—the water, the blood, the wound, the food…what does this mean to you? What did you want it to say? 

Rafaela Camelo: All these symbolisms, water, blood, food – all of them came from Catholic mythology. They are symbols that allow me to reflect on the stories in the Bible. The blood is related to life. The Sacramental Bread is the body of Christ itself. This adds layers to the film, that is the matter of this passion. This passion is conflicting because you either don’t know if you are in love with someone or if you want to be this someone. There is the moment during the film when she puts blood in her mouth that kind of represents stealing someone else’s personality, having this person inside you.

KD: What about the dualities?

RC: In several moments during the film, I put Giovana in this status of sin and salvation. I always work on both sides of the spectrum. In this case, she is the attraction and the repulsion. The sin and the muse. The god and the demon. She is always on both sides. She is treated as a God, she is idolized by the Priest himself, by Camila, who stares at her as a muse, but she is also the devil when she is drowned when she spits. So there is this duality of attraction and repulsion and there are a lot of moments where I use it. Giovana is even resurrected during the film. So, there is a lot of representation, symbolism, and metaphor.

KD: Do you see a connection between youth and the desire to experience closeness through taste and smell? Do you think Camila’s sensory curiosity is related to her youth and inexperience? 

RC: Yes, definitely. There is a connection between this thing that is primitive and sensorial about the desired of the food. Something that you taste in excess. The food matter comes because of it. Liking something a lot, and wanting it fast, in great quantity. This has to do with arriving at adulthood, experiencing things that you’ve never lived before. And all these feelings are something very tasteful to experience for the first time. So, the taste brings a metaphor along. 

KD: How did you manage to shoot a lesbian film in a church? 

RC: The church scene was definitely the most challenging. There was this challenge to get permission from the church to shoot a film that brings these themes along and, in fact, the Catholic Church is really against this kind of theme. Most of the churches do not allow any kind of shooting. So, for sure, we went to at least 20 churches, we went to a lot of places. The church where we shot was the only one that gave us permission and I’m not even sure if they asked anything about the story. They actually did not want to know much. Our intention was not to offend or generate a situation that would be uncomfortable for them. But at the same time, we needed to shoot the film. So, maybe being completely honest about the story would be putting the whole production of the film at risk, so it was a dilemma.

The scenes we shot there, we tried to do with the most discretion, and it was really hard to do. We have a dance in the film that we had to explain to the extras who were also people from the community. So we asked them if they had seen Whoopi Goldberg’s film, Sister Act, in which she sings and dances in the church. So, we told them that we wanted to do something like that. It was an easy way to explain to them without turning it into something uncomfortable.

Actors in colorful robes walk down an aisle in church in the short film Desires of the FleshKD: I found the dance scene in the church to serve as a really interesting midpoint in the film—did you view this scene as a turning point for the main characters? 

RC: The church entrance and the dance inside the church is a turning point. It’s the moment when the film brings something weird, something away from the reality that maybe is the clue for you to doubt what’s going on. It’s Camila’s peak in which she feels Giovana is answering to her. So, to me, there is a lot of symbolism, very clear: the woman inside the Catholic church, always representing sin, someone avoidable, someone terrifying, someone who represents the evil. It’s a moment in which Camila and the other girls are together, holding an apple, representing the role of a sinful woman with a “deal with it” attitude. 

KD: Camila and Giovana’s performances in the film are showstopping. Where did you find them? Did they act before or was this their first project? 

RC: The two main actresses are grad students in Performing Arts at the University of Brasília. Although they seem to be much younger, one is 19 and the other is 20-years-old. They were chosen in an open casting process. 

KD: How did you take the characters’ intentionality into consideration while making the film? 

RC: This was a script that went through lots and lots of treatments. It was a transformation process, finding the story itself and most of these changes happened after the casting. I had this idea of two girls representing two opposites but the way it would happen relied on the actresses themselves, their bodies, their inner characteristics. I tried in casting the coupling process. When I was choosing the actresses, I always had the girls in pairs to check how they would work out. As the script has so many blanks, I think some of them were filled by what you imply in the situations.

The girls brought themselves to it. Bianca brought some sort of innocence. She gives either a passive look and a psychotic look, and she showed that in the casting. Pamela is a very beautiful sensual girl. All of this affected the characters after the actresses were selected. It was not something that was necessarily planned. The script is not based on actions but on an interpretation of what you have in the scenes; not only what is being shown but wondering what is not. Imagining the blanks. So, all of these things we were filling during the rehearsals only made complete sense during the editing. So, I made some discoveries while editing.

Director Rafaela Camelo sitting and looking to the left

Director Rafaela Camelo

KD: Are you working on any new projects? 

RC: Now I’m working on a full-length script. In Brazil, I’m graduating in scriptwriting and I’m due in October to handle this script. This new story brings also some things that I worked before in the short film. The matters of religiosity, coming-of-age, and the mix of genres as melodrama, horror, terror, and suspense. This new project also presents a teenager girl as a protagonist but it is set in a family who are from the Jehovah’s Witnesses church. The story begins at the moment the girl just got a heart transplant. The organ transplants and blood transfusions are a very strong taboo among the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

As they allowed the daughter to get the transplant, the family chose their kid instead of the church. But that brought a curse to the family. They were completely isolated by the community and the girl starts to show some problems of changing personalities. This comes from research that I did in which both science and the Church describe that from the moment you do a heart transplant you assume the risk to embody the personality of the donor. This is described in science as it is in the religion. I think the theme is very interesting and instigated me to write the story.

For more information about the film check out its trailer and to learn more about Rafaela read this Sundance profile on her. 


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