I first caught Iuli Gerbase's fantastic debut The Pink Cloud as part of last year's virtual Sundance and came away from it feeling like I'd seen perhaps the definitive film of the pandemic. But it wasn't a pandemic movie, per se. It was written in 2017 and shot in 2019, meaning its story of two people negotiating isolation is engaged in unpacking a different kind of virulence. The script was completed post-Trump but pre-Bolsonaro, so this Brazilian film isn't even exactly a political metaphor, although it could certainly be read that way. While it's good, publicity-wise, for The Pink Cloud to seem a work of prescience, it's bad in that the picture's prescience detracts from the thorniness of its broader sociological themes. Given time, its embedded subtext concerning a patriarchal system reinforcing traditional gender roles should emerge as the novelty of it as the world's grimmest Magic 8-ball recedes.
I spoke with the smart, intense Ms. Gerbase over Zoom from Brazil after the new wave of the pandemic cancelled her planned trip to the United States to publicize The Pink Cloud's limited release here. I began by asking her about Caio Amon's incredible score for the film, which reminds me of Cliff Martinez's work on Soderbergh's Solaris remake. There's another movie featuring an extraterrestrial/supernatural force of unknown motive and a love story in extreme isolation.
IULI GERBASE: He's amazing. We met once before shooting and then when we were really in post-production the pandemic hit, so our collaboration was all remote. It was complex because he would send me a song and then I would have to say, "Okay, do you know that strumming sound that the (makes a la-la-la noise) instrument makes? Can we have more of that noise?" Because I'm not a musician, I don't know the name of any of the instruments, and anyway so much of it is electronic so I didn't have the vocabulary to talk to him, but he understood somehow. It was an amazing process with him. He wanted to work with sounds that seem a little bit like wind or the sensation of floating, you know, sounds that evoke the air because what does a theme for a cloud, a deadly but pink cloud, sound like?
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Yet the Cloud does have a theme.
Yes, Caio had a little tune that represented the cloud, it's uh like (makes a fluttering sound), ooh, I don't know, like a flutter. I think (gestures with her hands) something fluttering, like wings, maybe, or something caught in a wind? Things that represented the physical quality of the cloud, but also the mood of [it]. We'd play back and forth and then suddenly, "Yes, that's it."
The Cloud becomes a character, then.
IA: Yes. And that raises the problem of how do you make a film that shows boredom without also making a boring film? Music was vital for that, for demonstrating the passage of time while the characters are feeling that time is not passing--what's real in the world and what they perceive--and that this cloud is constant but their relationship with it changes over the ten years we cover.
You have a montage in it scored with a song called "Life is Just Life" that sounds like a Connie Francis tune, but I couldn't find it...
(laughs) That's because Caio composed it!
Yes! You're talking about the house sequence, and I thought, Let's make something prosaic, one of those old pop tunes in half-English and half-Italian. It was supposed to be very silly because I wanted the song to bring irony to the sequence. How "happy" cloud life is! So we have this frothy song, but under it are these images [that are] gradually more serious, the different things, trying to cope, but by the end of the song Giovanna is having a beer, they're both drinking, and you can see that she's drinking a little too much. She can't take it anymore. The song, we wanted it to be fatalistic. "Life is just life," you know.
I'm stunned. It reminds me of the creation of " Que Sera, Sera" for The Man Who Knew Too Much remake.
Doris Day! That was our touchstone when creating the song. I said, "We need something that sounds like 'Que Sera, Sera.'" Funny thing, our producer watched that sequence and I played the song for her, and she's like, "Okay, but how much is it going to cost?" I mean, she thought like you did, that it was a song out there and we'd have to pay for the rights to some estate and music is expensive. But I was like, "No, Caio made that." Even as we were editing, our incidental music was "Que Sera, Sera"--the way Hitchcock uses it in that film is this light family song that's playing over this dark story.
It touches on how your film seeks to undermine the ideal housewife image that Doris Day embodies, too.
Exactly. Beautiful housewife, you know, idealized. The other touchstone for the score, and for the film, were the tonal references used in Von Trier's Melancholia. That this is sci-fi in that it has a sci-fi premise but my focus isn't on the science, it's on the characters. An event occurs and how do these people react to it.
Talk to me about the gender divide in terms of how your characters react to the Cloud.
My idea was having these two characters that reacted differently to the Cloud, because we know from the beginning that Yago wants one thing and Giovana wants another. And the Cloud is pressuring her little by little to do things that she doesn't want to do. It's suffocating her, while the opposite seems true for Yago: the things that he wanted are ending up true, validated. And we see that they want different things in life. They have different notions of what freedom and happiness is.
You emphasize this by subverting their gender roles.
Yeah, for me, it's always important to try to get away from cliches, you know, the sexist cliches that we operate under, or those phrases like, "Oh, watch out for women in their thirties because they just want babies." The kind of thing you have to hear sometimes from your family or even a friend in a bar and you're like, "Oh my God." So Giovana is the one who doesn't want children, and she's the one that ends up supporting their household and Yago and eventually their child that she never really wanted. So she's the breadwinner, she works on a computer with technology, and he's not lazy, but he's a chiropractor...
--Which is not science.
(laughs) ...and reliant on touch, so obviously he can't work anymore. Their dynamic being non-traditional was very important for me.
It's so hard to deprogram yourself from that. To ferret out those biases.
Yes. I think when I read hundreds of scripts I'm like, "Okay, maybe it's best if you change that away from the cliche." And I'm far from immune to it. I'm far from perfect. I've written things where the protagonist is this man doing these traditionally-accepted masculine things and I have to challenge why I chose that--why did I just naturally go there? It's not enough just to say you're avoiding cliche, it's an active decision each time.
Is this film a product of the pressures you were receiving to get back into your box?
I think it is very hard to not feel pressured, you know? And I think I have pressured other women, too, you know, thoughtlessly, so it's... It's kind of the normal cycle of who we are, and we have to watch out for that constantly. Complicating it all, I was raised as a Catholic by my grandmother. So there are some things that seem to be the normal path, the one your family expects you to follow. Not just your family, but all of society. And even from movies, you know, [they] have a message for you of how you're supposed to act as a woman. The romantic comedies which show you how you're supposed to respond to men and the gorgeous relationship waiting for you if you do.
"We're watching them like the Cloud is watching them. It's always a presence there--a reminder that they're under scrutiny by something they can't see or influence, whether it's the cloud or it's us. I want it to be like a character, this character watching me all the time and torturing me."
You mention your Catholic upbringing. There's a visual motif in your picture of Yago praying and his prayer beads. What's your critique of organized religion?
From the beginning my thought was that this Cloud arrives, which is crazy and people don't know what it is, so naturally, given who we are, I think there would be lots of churches--uh, cloud churches--that spring up. It's our way to try to understand things that are unexplainable, so that if we don't have control over it, at least we can feel like we've given up our control consciously instead of having it taken away. I always wanted the Cloud to be a surrealistic element. It was never supposed to be a virus or something. So I think when we have something that we don't understand, we try to, uh, create answers for it.
Though we're discovering that even if we have science behind something, people make up beliefs anyway.
Isn't it sad? So yes, there's Yago praying to the Cloud. When I was showing the film to some friends, I'm like, "Did you understand that he was praying?" There is a detail that I think you're referring to where Giovanna finds the necklace, the prayer necklace, with her son's things. The religious mania is... It's not where many people gravitated, I think, but you know, some people did[.]
Yago is raising a son to…
Another person for the Cloud's team, you know, and that's--for me, it was important the child was a boy and not a girl. The Cloud gratifies a male order. Even in this small sample it's perpetuated, and then she feels, you know, Giovana feels like she's a minority in her own house, and it's very difficult for her.
You talked about the score telling the passage of a decade, but it's subtle. How else did you convey it?
Baby Marques, our makeup artist. Incredible. We knew that many years were going to pass and I didn't want heavy makeup, you know, I don't want to see the foundation, and that's the way she works too: so subtle, so willing to experiment with these little details. For instance, in the beginning, Yago's hair is fuller and he is losing hair gradually, his hairline recedes, to [where] by the end of it he's a completely different person, but you may not notice because we've been watching him the whole time.
Like when you live with someone, you don't notice their changes.
Yes, I wanted to evoke that feeling of living with someone for ten years--the time we're spending with these people. We see things advancing and [moving]--the baby, of course--but we maybe don't note major differences that would jar us out of it. If we looked at them from the beginning and then at the end, you'd see it. With Giovana, her hair, she has three tones of hair throughout: she starts with blondish, and then she becomes red, and then she becomes brunette. It was essential for the film and for the actors to feel that time was passing. Baby is an incredible artist. Without her, I don't know if the actors would feel the time passing so keenly. By the end, they were tired. Everyone was tired. It was a one-month shoot, cooped up, you know, so by the end of it, Giovanna especially was very tired: sick of the apartment, sick of our shooting. On the last day, she had a microphone on her chest and she was starting to get a little cold and we could hear her heart beating on the microphone. And I was like, oh my God. It's time to wrap this up.
Reality is another thing you tackle in the picture: what is reality?
(laughs) Deep question. It's like when I went into the fight scene at the end, and the boy, Lina, is like, come to reality, come to live with us in real life, and she was like, "This is not real life," but they have different notions of what real life is. And isn't he more right? Because this is reality now, and what she thinks is reality is just a memory. For the boy, it's the apartment, and he doesn't know anything different. But for Giovana, what the real life means to her is going out and going to the park and meeting friends and having a beer. So she goes into her VR headset to experience what for her is something "real," but is it? How is it real? How is it not? They shot some real things for the VR program and she's watching that, right? She's able to experience it, right?
So we create these "reality" bubbles.
[I] was thinking in terms of bubbles for these characters together and apart, so now Giovanna's bubble is even smaller. For a short time, it grows because her bubble now is the VR glasses and she becomes instantly addicted to them.
The film itself is another layer of reality, as it exists now in a world in which it is an escape from this "reality."
And so the question becomes, How much of the world do we want to engage in: all of it? Part of it? Do we curate our bubble?
Yes, and to our doom. How much do you want to read the news and to care about others when you can't help? I think, I don't know if it was on Instagram or something, but it was an American influencer saying, "I was reading about the history of Chile and I had never considered the history of a country that was not the United States," and I was like, "How can it be that your entire world is the United States?" That's very bizarre, you know. We have these bubbles, and they're built around how much you're open to hearing. On the other side of it, I read an article about people who are becoming addicted to being triggered, you know, like to reading bad news, getting alarmed by it.
I felt that way after 9/11 here. Like, I wanted, in a way, more disaster I could lose myself in.
You become hooked to a bad feeling, and social media and constant exposure is an endless source of bad news. These people are reading the news all the time because they feel responsible somehow, but what can you do? So maybe you're just feeding yourself with this stuff. I know some who do that, and of course Yago is completely isolated on the other side of that--by choice. Even against his father eventually, when he becomes too demented to recognize him. Isolation is one of the main themes of the film: how much do you choose to isolate yourself? When I was a teen, I was much like Yago. I was terrible at reading the news. The normal state of my head still is being on the moon a little bit. Like Yago drinking that pink juice the government provides. But I don't know if he really doesn't know about the bad stuff or if he's just repressing it.
You've mentioned Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel as a primary inspiration for The Pink Cloud. I'm picking up hints of Solaris, but what else pushed you?
The other two in addition to The Exterminating Angel were Sartre's "No Exit" and Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. The scene in there where Yago is listening to an audiobook, it's the Christie, and in the Buñuel there's a character who says, Yes, it's terrible they're all stuck at this endless dinner party, but at least she doesn't have to wake up tomorrow and make breakfast for the children. I wanted to capture that sense of absurdity in this situation that those pieces do: how you might be in prison but at least you are free--but because you are in prison, you were never really free. Like, we always follow society's rules--we have to, in order to remain in society--so nobody's ever completely free.
Is the Cloud free?
One of the exercises I did as I was writing this script was to write it from the perspective of the Cloud. It was very interesting as an exercise. I had it saying, "I am watching you and I will torture you and I will challenge in time what you believe." It has infinite patience. We're watching them like the Cloud is watching them. It's always a presence there--a reminder that they're under scrutiny by something they can't see or influence, whether it's the cloud or it's us. I want it to be like a character, this character watching me all the time and torturing me.
There's even a scene where Giovana says to it, "You are torturing me."
I think that's where you find ideas of voyeurism. It's the cloud and it's me making the film and us watching it. We're always with them.
What does the Cloud want? What role does it play? Inquisitor? Judge? Torturer?
The virtual sex sequences speak to this, I think, where Yago goes about it in the most insular kind of way through a video chat--the most expected way--but Giovana goes to a window and participates with a neighbour that way. What she does is more engaged, invites more witnesses, than what he does. I think the Cloud wants to suppress freedom and the process of the film is to witness how each of these people reacts to that loss of freedom. But that freedom can mean different things. It could mean the freedom that you don't have because you have a job or you have a family, or you have a physical body and you get sick and you get old. There was one very interesting thing that a student told me after a screening in Spain. She said the Cloud is making a choice that you can't come back from. I never thought of that.