Metro Weekly

‘Follow the Protocol’ Review: Reel Affirmations 2023

While undeniably sexy and evocative, much like the pandemic itself, 'Follow the Protocol' overstays its welcome.

Follow The Protocol --Photo: Renato Galamba
Follow The Protocol –Photo: Renato Galamba

The days of masks, distancing, and endlessly googling symptoms may be long gone for many, but not in Fábio Leal’s Follow the Protocol (★★★☆☆), set during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Brazilian filmmaker, who writes, directs, and stars as protagonist Francisco, opens on a familiar pandemic scene: the mind-numbing nothingness of being stuck indoors. Francisco putters about his small apartment, watering plants and sorting his antidepressants, while muted environmental sounds filter in from outside.

But Francisco isn’t just an idle isolator — instead, he’s also enforcing lockdown on others.

During a video call with distanced — and distant — lover Ronaldo (Marcus Curvelo), Francisco is branded the “Instagram inspector” for spending his days calling out friends for daring to break protocols and have sex — a hyperlocal Gays Over Covid, of sorts. Naturally, that much piety leads to hypocrisy; after Ronaldo admits to cheating and the pair become permanently socially distanced, Francisco has one thing on his mind: sex.

His paranoia about Covid-19 leads him to search for information on safer sex during the pandemic — something enough people were doing at the time that New York City put out official guidance, which Francisco eagerly follows. Reaching out to an old flame, he arranges a hookup in possibly the least sexiest way possible: “Would you like to fuck following ALL the protocols.”

Follow The Protocol --Photo: Renato Galamba
Follow The Protocol — Photo: Renato Galamba

In a scene lifted straight out of Dexter, Francisco seals off the apartment, erecting a giant plastic sheet between him and his suitor. Enter a bemused Raul (Paulo César Freire), who follows Francisco’s many protocols in anticipation of finally feeling some physical contact.

Both actors excel here, in what is arguably the film’s strongest moment. Francisco rattles off guidance on safer sex positions while reaching out to caress Raul’s chest, but once the two men touch through the sheet his voice falters, and from there it’s a slow, sensual, passionate breakdown of the literal barrier between them, until they’re naked save for N95 masks.

Leal’s film doesn’t shy from nudity or sex, nor does he shy from the desperation many felt to have physical touch at a time when such things were borderline criminal. But even in the heat of the moment, Francisco can’t shake that concern — a slipped mask leads to an abrupt halt. When Raul removes it entirely, he’s told to leave.

However, after this strong encounter, the film starts to meander, bouncing Francisco between Covid-obsessing and sexual desire. Leal’s narrative tone also vacillates between comedic and dramatic, as if uncertain of how to portray the subject matter. At one point, a hookup silences Francisco’s Covid-panicking by commanding, “Shut up and suck my dick.” Moments later, that same hookup is telling an emotional story about a hospitalized elderly couple.

Leal’s more avant-garde elements also clash with the quiet contemplation that exists elsewhere, and his use of digital media cheapens rather than enhances — that early video call is presented entirely one-sided, runs for too long, and the quality seems lifted straight from Zoom.

While this may be deliberate, it looks amateur rather than auteur, and kills the film’s opening momentum.

Follow the Protocol could have been a funny, touching, and impactful short film, tightly edited to evoke the dilemma between personal desire and public responsibility that many felt during the pandemic. Indeed, Francisco and Raul’s encounter will hit hard for anyone who took that risk during the height of the pandemic.

Instead, stretched out over 70 minutes, Leal’s film loses its impact. While undeniably sexy and evocative, much like the pandemic itself, it overstays its welcome.

Follow the Protocol plays Friday, Oct. 20, at 3 p.m. at The Eaton.

Live screenings of Reel Affirmations films are Oct. 20 to 22 at the Eaton Hotel, 1201 K St. NW, in Washington, D.C.

Reel Affirmations 2023 includes the Virtual Film Festival, providing online access to 43 films for those film lovers who cannot attend the festival in person, with a viewing window from Oct. 23 to 29. Of the 43 films, 26 are available only online.

For a full schedule of films, including retrospective showings, all pricing and pass options, and party information, visit

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