Pick Of The Week: Bacurau
Thrilling, narratively daring and ambitious in scope Bacurau draws on modern Brazilian sociopolitical concerns to deliver a hard-hitting, genre-blurring drama.
The fictional village of Bacurau is set in the northeastern hinterlands of Brazil, in a region known as the “sertao” which roughly translates to “outback.” It is a rough and arid region populated by thorny bush shrubs, surrounded by the highlands. Water is a scarce and highly politicised resource, made clear by the opening sequence of the film where we watch a young woman Teresa (Barbara Colen) returning home, having hitched a ride with a local water tanker driver. They discuss the on-going water problems of their town, exacerbated by corrupt politicians who have dammed the region’s only fresh water source, preventing it from reaching smaller, more remote villages. On the radio, authorities are on the lookout for a local insurgency leader Lunga, and are offering rewards to whistleblowers. Teresa and her companion both firmly establish whose side they are on. The tanker blows up hot dust in its tracks as they drive into Bacurau, passing a sign that says “if you must, come in peace.”
It is a tense and ominous introduction to the eponymous village, which you quickly realise is in mourning. Teresa is the granddaughter of the village matriarch, Carmelita and has returned home for her funeral bringing with her precious cargo of vaccines and medicines. She belongs to one of the most educated families in the village - her father is a professor and runs the local school. The community depicted is multi-racial and eccentric, made up of doctors, teachers and scientists, but also farmers, butchers, outlaws, pan-gender prostitutes and even a bard. It is a tightly knit community that is accepting of each other’s differences and character flaws, united by their collective isolation and suspicion of the wider system.
On the surface, Bacurau is about how this remote, forgotten community comes together to fight off an unknown, mysterious evil that is suddenly attacking the village, picking off villagers one by one. Sinister, unnatural occurrences suggest that the attack is larger than a mere communal rivalry - in one of the most eerie scenes in the film Teresa’s father discovers that Bacurau is no longer visible on satellite maps of the region. He tries to explain away the disconcerting discovery to his young students by pointing out the town on a hand drawn paper map instead. Village folk notice a UFO shaped drone flying overhead and unknown strangers suddenly begin to show up in the village. Soon after, the bodies start to pile up.
In a surprising move, the audience is introduced to the attackers early on into the film. They appear to be a ragtag group of ‘tourists’ participating in a surreal, dystopian, video game - styled competition which involves infiltrating a remote area of a remote country and killing locals for points. The film’s political statement is made in an intriguing scene set around a dinner table where the assailants discuss strategy. The tourists are mostly white foreigners, though not all American. Their motives for ‘playing’ range from thrill to redemption to simply satiating an unexplainable appetite for violence. There are also segregations within the group as the ‘foreigners’ view the participating upper class Brazilians as unequal to them. Indifference towards their ‘targets’, the elated sense of adventure in the air and their selfish interests in winning at any cost are representative of Brazil’s turbulent (neo) colonial history.
Filmmakers Kleber Mendonca Filho and his long-time Production Designer turned co-director, Juliano Dornelles, both from the region the film represents, claim to have made “not a Western but a war film, one with a psychology more representative of the Vietnam War or the Soviet attack of Afghanistan.” This is reflected in the modes of battle the two sides adopt. On the offensive, the tourists have access to all the latest gadgets and communication networks. They choose their own weapons, at times speaking of their machines with the passion of geriatric hobbyists. Meanwhile, the town of Bacurau resorts to traditional guerrilla techniques to defend themselves - setting traps, using human surveillance and eventually resorting to bloody, crude and fairly ‘savage’ warfare methods which includes the use of a psychotropic desert drug.
Bacurau is undeniably a political film. It is as much a siege film as it is a resistance film: a siege of the human experience by the politically favoured upper classes within Brazil and at a global level by those in the ‘first world,’ and in sharp contrast, the resistance put up by poor, marginalised, powerless communities across the world for a basic validation of their individual existence. The film is not just critical of the Brazilian government’s indifference to its indigenous rural population, but draws heavily on local traditions to make the point arrive home - the town of Bacurau is fashioned on a ‘quilombo’ which was a settlement and site of resistance formed by escaped African slaves in the 1600s, while the ‘cangaceiro’ tradition of flamboyantly dressed social outlaws adds panache to the character of Lunga (Silvero Pereira), the Che Guevara despising, Mad Max inspired village renegade who eventually returns to fight the good fight.
With its vintage anamorphic lens shots, dreamy vistas of the wild landscape, split focus screens and lateral wipes between scene changes, Bacurau has the immediate feel of a 1970’s Hollywood Western and is in fact majorly influenced by the works of John Carpenter. Its electronic synth-inspired background score, interspersed with lonely folk guitar riffs, also feeds directly into the film’s deliciously raw, pulp aesthetic. It is however a subversion of the genre, as it retrofits archetypal characters and tropes into modern motifs and themes. With striking visuals and its cast of colourful characters that seem at once primitive but also relatable as byproducts of the neglectful modern world, Bacurau conjures a disconcerting and violent image of Brazil’s rural realities today. And while the heavily layered, subtext laden reading of the film may not make for a wholly satisfying first viewing, especially given the film’s languid pacing and uneven control over tension, it will surely encourage the curious cinephile for a second, deeper look.
The film was selected to compete for the Palme d'Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and won the Jury Prize. It was also a resounding Box Office success in Brazil. Watch Bacurau on Mubi for the next 27 days for a genre bending, out of the box cinema experience.