One could argue that rape-revenge films are more topical now than ever. Though reported rapes are on the decline, sexual assault cases on college campuses have become an increasingly hot topic. There’s something about that setting that should be feel safe, so the fact that danger could be lurking in the shadows is genuinely frightening. As a result, it makes perfect sense for a genre film to analyze why and how these attacks keep occurring. Natalia Leite’s MFA is a disturbing, fascinating, oddly entertaining tale of justice that takes the classic rape-revenge setup and updates it to an eerily realistic level.
Francesca Eastwood stars as Noelle, a talented art student whose insecurities prevent her from baring her soul in her paintings. She has the technical abilities, but she doesn’t have the courage to tell the truth through her art. But after she is brutally raped at a party, Noelle begins to experience a newfound inspiration to paint — and end the lives of every rapist she can find.
Whenever you discuss a topic as upsetting as sexual assault, there’s a natural tendency to walk on eggshells in order to avoid coming across as insensitive. The idea of adding a handful of comedic moments to a rape-revenge movie is shocking and incredibly daring, but that is precisely what Leite does here. Even more impressive is the fact that she actually manages to generate some nervous chuckles throughout MFA thanks to some extreme finesse. The sequences of rape and assault are played completely straight. But the scenes in which Noelle seeks vengeance or justice often have a scathing, darkly comedic aspect to them that makes the film feel drastically different from the typical film in its genre.
By no means is MFA a comedy, though. It’s a dark, suspenseful, and often upsetting horror movie that has some occasional glimpses of humor. But some of the greatest, most memorable moments of the film are also the hardest to watch. The grim realities of life and the horrific effects of sexual assault are viewed through a magnifying glass. Leite never shies away from brutality, and despite the fact that it isn’t nearly as graphic as some of the crueler, more exploitative rape-revenge films, it more than makes up for it on an emotional level. MFA is a heartbreaking gut-punch that takes the subgenre and elevates it to another level. This one promises to be polarizing due to its unique take on such a harsh subject matter, but it’s a damn fine film.
MFA recently screened at SXSW 2017.