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Noelle (Francesca Eastwood), an art student struggling to find her voice, is sexually assaulted by a fellow classmate. Attempting to cope with her trauma, she impulsively confronts her attacker, leading to a violent altercation that culminates in his accidental death. Noelle tries to return to normalcy, but, when she discovers she is only one of many silenced sexual assault survivors on campus, she takes justice into her own hands. A vigilante is born – retribution is the inspiration she's been waiting for. (From Dark Sky’s official synopsis)

Feminine retribution and haunted women in fiction dates back to the days before Shakespeare, when Keres, Danaids, and Sirens haunted Greek mythology. Too often, though, the violence done by women is tied to the male-centric lenses of the jealous girlfriend, the overbearing mother, or the harpy wife. As their fears are tied to the actions of men, so are their torments and impulse to wreak havoc. Can a rape/revenge movie be a feminist and/or pro-woman movie? It’s difficult to argue that any story that uses rape as a plot device can be anything but misogynistic and the most interesting variations on rape/revenge motifs – Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981) and Aldo Lado Night Train Murders (Italian: L'ultimo treno della notte, 1975), for example – have more to say about the nature of reprisal and social privilege. As an adult man, my opinion on the matter will always be skewed by that entitlement. I can never know if the narrative tropes employed by these movies truly empower women, even if there is anecdotal evidence claiming they do. Female-produced rape/revenge films do exist – including Janet Greek’s The Lady’s Club (1986), Virginie Despentes & Coralie Trinh Thi’s Baise Moi (2000), Coline Serreau’s Chaos (2001), Talia Lugacy’s Descent (2007), Jen & Sylvia Soska’s American Mary (2012), and, indirectly, Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body (2009) – but they remain the exception, rather than the rule.

With an independent budget and limited release, Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. has managed to garner prompt praise and attention from both critical circles and exploitation fans; something that few (if any) other rape/revenge have managed since Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring in 1960. This success (modest in the bigger picture, but probably important in the long run) is almost certainly tied to the fact that M.F.A. was written and directed by women, who provide a distinctly feminine and modern point-of-view. While writer/co-producer/actress Leah McKendrick’s screenplay was written in reference to the Brock Turner case and the spotlight it subsequently shined on college campus-based assaults, the entire rape/revenge concept feels pretty damn relevant to even more recent news. As prominent, powerful men the world over are sowing the sour seeds of their crude, abusive behavior, M.F.A. makes a strong case for women taking the inherently misogynistic genre for themselves. A feminine perspective is the only one that really matters.

M.F.A. approaches this easily exploitable subject matter in a brutal, subjective way that keeps the audience engaged without taking it too easy on our moral sensibilities. The events that precede and follow the first act rape may seem too on-the-nose for some viewers, but the truth is that equivalent real-world events tend to follow a particularly distressing blueprint. Typically, a rape/revenge movie draws outrage from its cartoonishly evil villains – men who probably do exist, but are rarely seen in day-to-day life. The thing that Leite and McKendrick bring to the Ms. 45 formula, besides their feminine perspective, is the ‘routine’ quality of campus rape. The rapists are everyday jocks, pretentious art students, and other bland brands of college boys. They’re joined by purposefully ineffectual administrators and peers that try to generate change with inspiring hashtags, instead of action. The film stumbles a bit when openly discussing the ethics of corporal punishment and features an ineffectual subplot where police detectives investigate the murders, but ultimately excels, due to its refusal to delve into typical rape/revenge antics while trying to educate its audience. Setting the story in an art school allows them to draw interesting parallels between the emotional drains of physical violence and creative inspiration and also makes M.F.A. comparable to another recent, brutal, and female-driven horror film, Julia Ducournau’s Raw (French: Grave, 2016), in which a prestigious veterinary school serves as a backdrop for a young woman’s ravenous sexual awakening.


M.F.A. was shot using digital camera rigs, though the credits do not list which models. It is presented on this Blu-ray in 1080p video and framed at 1.85:1. Leite and cinematographer Aaron Kovalchik utilize shallow and soft focus, as well as a lot of low-level source lighting to convey a hyper-realistic tone, which is great for its intensely subjective storytelling, but creates problems for the image quality. Overall, this transfer does a fine job conveying vital texture, patterns, and shapes through the blurry gloom. The in-focus lines are sharp and unmarred by haloes or similar artefacts, and the colour quality is consistent. However, at its dimmest and softest, there are noise and blocking issues. Some of these, such as the dark, discoloured digital grain that wiggle around in the deep, warm colours, are likely unavoidable and present in the original footage. In addition, blooming effects are probably an intended side effect of the shallow focus photography. Other problems, like slight banding and occasionally jagged fine edges, seem to be the fault of disc compression. In motion, these caveats are all negligible and not unheard of for digitally-shot, low-budget indies, which are getting closer and closer to closing the gap between them and their Big Hollywood counterparts.



M.F.A. is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound. The mix favours dialogue, music, and representational sound to natural effects or aggressive directional movement. In fact, there are several occasions where dialogue is purposefully obscured, muffled, or echoed, so that the audience can focus on the character reactions, instead of the words they are saying. When the mix aims for ‘normal,’ everything is clean and relatively realistic. Sonya Belousova’s driving electronic score fits the film’s smooth, retro-modern look; similar to the stuff Cliff Martinez keeps doing for Nicolas Winding Refn, but with a much meaner edge.


  • Interviews with director Natalia Leite, actress/star Francesca Eastwood, and writer/producer/actor Leah McKendrick (4:11, HD) – These are frightfully short, but do offer minor insight into the making of the film.
  • Trailer and trailers for other Dark Sky releases



M.F.A. is too serious and wrapped up in its message to scratch that violent, cathartic rape/revenge itch, but a typical exploitation audience is not the one it’s playing to. This is only Natalia Leite’s second feature-length movie as director, following 2015’s Bare, and actress Leah McKendrick’s first feature screenplay, so I’m interested to see how they’re grow following this film’s success. Dark Sky’s Blu-ray looks spectacular and comes fitted with a unique DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Unfortunately, the extras are incredibly brief and not particularly informative.



*Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.