The town in the shocker Bacurau (2019) is fictional, a bit magical, at once ordinary and otherworldly. It’s filled with faces that have life etched in them, which helps deepen the realism. And while the story is set in the near future, it looks like the present: the charming landscapes, laughing children, crowing roosters, the grinning balladeer with a guitar. Then, the guns come out, history rushes in and a ghost pops by. (It smiles.)
In the wild world of Bacurau, queasy humor meets razor-sharp politics and rivers of blood. An exhilarating fusion of high and low, the movie takes a shopworn premise — townsfolk facing a violent threat — and bats it around until it all goes ka-boom. Part of what’s exciting is how the filmmakers marshal genre in the service of their ideas, using film form to deflect, tease and surprise. The movie looks and plays like a western but also flirts with dystopian science fiction and pure pulp: bang, bang, splat. By the time the cult actor Udo Kier rolls up it’s clear that anything gleefully goes.
It’s also obvious that the writer-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles are having a good time, and they want you to have one too. Dornelles has worked as a production designer on Mendonça Filho’s movies, including his sui generis Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius. Their partnership proves seamless on Bacurau, which flows despite a switch-backing story that starts with a truck bouncing along a remote highway, a woman riding shotgun. The countryside is green in the way of certain deserts, but empty coffins litter the road, along with a corpse.
It is quite the enigmatic opener, a variant on those puzzlers that begin with a body sprawled on the parlor floor next to a bloody candelabrum. But there’s no clever detective to put the pieces together. (You have to do that yourself.) There’s also no obvious narrative blueprint and precious little exposition. There are instead beauties, mysteries and characters, like that passenger, Teresa (Bárbara Colen), who arrives in Bacurau on the day of a funeral. As Teresa walks through the seemingly empty town, dragging a suitcase, she passes its boozy doctor, Domingas (Sônia Braga, the one and only). And then Teresa hails a man who pops a hallucinogen in her mouth.
The filmmakers spend the first half of the movie introducing the town of Bacurau; they drop you in the middle of it — without an evident story — then nose around its streets and secrets. There’s a pretty white church, but it’s used for storage, and a sturdy little museum built of stone. More characters pop in, including Teresa’s sexy friend, Acácio (Thomas Aquino), who has bedroom eyes and a gun in his waistband. He may be a thief or an insurgent; it’s hard to tell. Bacurau’s younger inhabitants like to watch a recording of him executing people. It looks like a video game and this is the future, but life is still cruel, as is evident once more bloody corpses start piling up.
In his earlier features, Mendonça Filho used different spaces and homes — a middle-class neighborhood, a derelict plantation, an apartment threatened with demolition — as conduits to ideas about history, community, surveillance and power. These same issues swirl through Bacurau, which eventually settles into a brutal, disturbing story about haves and have-nots, a social division that Mendonça Filho and Dornelles make ferociously literal. This can be read as a metaphor about Brazil (and the inequities that trouble the larger world), but like Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai this is also a story deeply rooted in a precisely mapped place.
That place is Brazil’s backcountry or sertão and, even more specifically, a quilombo, one of the many settlements originally founded by escaped enslaved people. In Bacurau, the filmmakers have created a version of a settlement that Mendonça Filho, in an interview with Film Comment, called a “remixed quilombo”: “a black community, a historical place of resistance, but with some white, indigenous, trans and other inhabitants.” When, midway through, some townspeople begin practicing capoeira — a combat game that originated with enslaved Africans — they are both communing with that history of defiance and readying for a new battle.
Right before things heat up, two ominous strangers ride up to Bacurau. Like latter-day cowboys, they wander into a modest store filled with hanging animal carcasses and buzzing flies, a setting that’s as unassuming as it is skin-crawlingly creepy (much like this movie). When one of the strangers asks the female proprietor what the villagers are called, her son shouts “people!” The proprietor then explains that the town is named for a bird, and the stranger asks if it’s extinct. Not here, the Bacurau woman says with a smile — it comes out at night and it is a hunter.
When the fight finally arrives it’s by turns absurd and horrifying. The second half of Bacurau is unsparing in its violence, filled with gunfire, terror in the night and revolutionary fervor that skews pathological. There’s a bandit in eyeliner, a fierce squirt (Silvero Pereira), and a gang of Americans right out of a Hollywood blowout. After an hour of silky camera moves, amusing details and a deep sense of history, Mendonça Filho and Dornelles switch gears, fold in a homage to John Carpenter and go berserk, unleashing a nightmare that’s all the worse for being eerily like life.
Review courtesy of the New York Times