Directors: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles
Stars: Bárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Udo Kier
Both Kleber Mendonça Filho’s prior films – 2012’s Neighbouring Sounds and 2016’s Aquarius – depicted Brazilian communities under pressure from external sources. They were subtly balanced portraits of micro-climates in touching distance from humdrum reality. Neither of these works may properly prepare you for his latest. In collaboration with Juliano Dornelles, Bacurau emboldens this running preoccupation while subverting viewer expectations in the process. While it starts out as a highbrow piece of social observation for the National Geographic crowd, the second half codifies a whole other audience. Bacurau may be the centre point of a particularly unusual Venn diagram…
The film’s virtuoso opening shot – from orbit, no less – highlights this change in ambition, and the abutment of seemingly at-odds sensibilities and lays the groundwork for a running theme of surveillance. Zeroing in on Brazil, we’re then taken to the rural setting of Bacurau; a town in mourning as it’s matriarch Carmelita has passed away.
Even before this is revealed, omens of death are prominent. Teresa (Bábara Colen) returns to the town along its sole access road in the company of Pacote (Thomas Aquino). Their path is temporarily blocked by an accident site. Coffins have spilled into the road. An uneasy image that prefigures the violence to come.
Coffins haunt the movie, in fact. They keep cropping up. Death is near, always. But it often appears to be an invading force; something pushing its way in from outside. The rural Brazil that is presented here is largely peaceful but for encroaching perils of varying origin. It’s a flip of the stereotype Western audiences might be familiar with. South American cinema is widely known on our shores for gun-toting gangster fare, giving a stilted image of the continent’s relationship to crime and criminality. Bacurau doesn’t deny that corruption is rife in Brazil, but it questions who we should assume the perpetrators are.
Time is taken instilling a sense of community and togetherness. On her arrival at the wake, Teresa’s suitcase (containing medicines) is passed overhead from person to person until it is installed safely. This depiction of shared weight is echoed very quickly in the pall-bearing scene that follows. The townsfolk are benign until they’re backed into a corner. Tensions are high as their water supply has been embargoed by crooked mayor Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima). But even this local drama is consumed by a far more imminent external threat. The residents notice, with some disquiet, that their town can no longer be found on satellite maps of the region. At the same time, their phones no longer work. Then Udo Kier literally bursts into the film as German ex-pat Michael, and everything changes.
The tonal surge ought to cause the film to falter, or even topple, but its deceptively well seeded. Genre clues are feathered in cannily. From a Star Wars style wipe to a drone shaped like a UFO, Filho and Dornelles prepare us – almost subliminally – for a shift toward something more. A Coens-esque sequence involving a pair of trail biker tourists who seemingly happen upon the town acts as the final amp-up before this deliberate swerve. In retrospect, it’s very cleverly pitched.
What follows ought not be discussed, but the key references for the picture suddenly (and appropriately) begin to stem from Western sources, particularly the US (John Carpenter) and Italy (Sergio Leone). Bacurau gets its hands dirty, in the process it becomes a thrilling treaty on a particular kind of imperialist privilege that is both classist and inherently racist. The film becomes an intriguing counterpoint to another recently-doomed release to hit theatres from the guys at Blumhouse. Comparing the two will be the basis of think-pieces to come as varying publications struggle for new content in a world on hold.
“This isn’t supposed to happen around here,” one character says fatefully during the film’s apex point, and its a particularly loaded sentiment. Bacurau is a lesson in the folly of assumptions. It’s a fiercely patriotic film for Brazil (in a strange way), and the global notice that it is getting is a small victory for the country’s cinema. While it undoubtedly plays like a side-step for Filho – an excursion into another’s sandbox, if you will – the idea that it might spark renewed interest in exporting Brazilian movies is exciting indeed.