Director: Natalia Leite
Starring: Francesca Eastwood, Clifton Collins, Michael Welch, Leah McKendrick
Words: Carly Stevenson
“What if we’re not prepared?” asks art student Noelle, the protagonist of Natalie Leite’s powerful ‘rape revenge’ narrative, which drives a pointed blade into the toxic masculinity of campus culture.
Leite’s film revolves around questions of accountability and explores what happens when individuals are let down by the institutions that are supposed to protect them. In the wake of the recent Weinstein scandal, there has never been a better time to interrogate this issue.
M.F.A exposes a grim reality: we still live in a society that teaches victims how to avoid being raped rather than teaching perpetrators not to rape. This is a refrain that haunts the film’s thoughtful dialogue, which is largely delivered by Francesca Eastwood, whose mesmerising performance goes a long way in elevating M.F.A from the murkiness of its sub-genre. It is never easy to make art from such a delicate and triggering subject matter, yet Leite handles it with due sensitivity.
As Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) learns to channel her traumatic experience into a creative outlet, her art and her character undergo a transformative development. Her initial timidity gives way to empowerment as she becomes more confident, frank and self-aware. And yet, the memory of her assault still lingers, invading her relationships as well as her thesis exhibition project. It is worth mentioning that the circumstances of Noelle’s rape are critical to the film’s message: she is raped by someone she knows and is sexually attracted to. What starts off as a consensual ‘hook up’ quickly turns into a devastatingly casual assault, which leaves Noelle feeling ashamed, confused and violated. What is even more devastating is that she is not the first female to be brutalised by a fellow student(s) in this story. She is, however, the first to take matters into her own hands after the University and the police fail to take the offence seriously.
M.F.A is the perfect length for a thriller/horror film. In just over 1 hour 30 minutes, Leite’s dizzying portrayal of a Noelle’s journey through the stages of shock, disbelief, anger, vengefulness and guilt subversively places the victim in a position of power, allowing the audience to bear witness to the reclaiming and restructuring of her identity.
While M.F.A isn’t a conventional recovery narrative, there is something grotesquely satisfying about Noelle’s quest for justice. And while we do not condone her violence, Leite invites us to think carefully before condemning it outright.