The Term "Genre-Bending" Doesn't Even Come Close to Describing the Amazing Film 'Bacurau' (2019)
Written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles
Produced by Emilie Lesclaux, Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt
Cinematography by Pedro Sotero
Edited by Eduardo Serrano
Music by Mateus Alves, Tomaz Alves Souza
Production companies: CinemaScópio Produções, SBS Productions, Globo Filmes, Simio Filmes, Arte France Cinema, Canal Brasil, Telecine
Distributed by Vitrine Filmes (Brazil), SBS Distribution (France)
(2:12) AFI Silver Virtual Screening Room
(Bacurau, translated from the Portuguese, means nighthawk.)
“What are inhabitants of Bacurau called?”
Everything in Bacurau is revealed in such a way that evokes curiosity and wonder rather than confusion or distrust. In the film’s opening moments we see (1) a shot from space looking down on the Earth (somewhat reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing; co-director Mendonça Filho is a big Carpenter fan), (2) a rural road where a truck carrying caskets has overturned, and (3) what could be either a festival, a funeral, or both. We do know that this is a story that takes place in a remote village in northeast Brazil “a few years from now.” That’s what we know, and that’s all we need to know. For the moment…
Part of the fun of Bacurau is walking around in this world, getting to know its people and their lives before the story really takes off. (And boy, does it take off!) There are no cardboard or stereotyped characters in this village. We meet an elderly guitar player who acts as the village bard, a man who drives a water truck to the village because the water supply has been sabotaged, and a woman named Teresa (Bárbara Colen) who has come home at attend the funeral of her grandmother Carmelita, the village matriarch. These are just some of the people we meet, and we’re not entirely sure whose story we’re watching, but it doesn’t matter. While we’re learning characters, we’re also picking up odd bits of information from strange scenes, such as the ranting of a local doctor (Sônia Braga) disrupting the funeral, a casket overflowing with water, and the aforementioned bard singing about sorcery, charms, and “a feast of fear and terror.”
Other strange things happen: A local schoolteacher and his students can no longer find their village on Google maps. Cellphone reception suddenly stops. A 1950s-style flying saucer appears in the skies. Yes, you read that correctly, a ‘50s-style flying saucer.
I can’t get into much more of the film without revealing major spoilers, so if you’re intrigued so far, watch the movie. (More on how to do that at the end of this review.) If you don’t want the film spoiled, stop reading right here. But I will show you the trailer:
If you have seen the movie, feel free to continue, because we have a lot to talk about…
Those first 40 minutes are fascinating, but the film really starts kicking into overdrive with the arrival of the two bikers wearing gaudy outfits. The first section of the film may not be normal, but it isn’t quite David Lynchian either, yet, when the bikers show up, there’s a sense of dread that’s inescapable. Two local guys who’ve just discovered a house filled with dead bodies get stopped by the bikers. “We’re about to die,” one of them says to the other, and even though this line is unnecessary, it’s also chilling. A more intriguing line, “This isn’t supposed to happen around here,” conveys that the locals are way out of their element and that a paralyzing fear has overtaken them. It’s almost like a moment from a Cormac McCarthy novel.
When you get right down to it, Bacurau is really all about roles and perception. Everyone in the film has a role to perform, some respected more than others, but the locals all acknowledge this. The perception they have of themselves may not always be positive, but they share a certain bond that ties them together as a community.
Then we’re introduced to the killers. Their role soon becomes clear (although we don’t initially know who’s controlling them) as we discover not only their purpose, but also their nature, manifesting itself through infighting, callousness, racial scorn, and a love of killing. (Is it any wonder most of them are Americans?) Their perception of the locals is about as low as you can get, even with the two motorcycle riders with whom they’ve partnered. These guys (and women) are all odious stereotypes, but odious stereotype who are also interesting. When one of the killers (who has at least some degree of morality, upset over the killing of a child) challenges the German-born group leader Michael (Udo Kier), calling him a Nazi, Michael responds, “I’ve been living in America for 40 years. I’ve been an American longer than you.”
There’s also an abundance of stupidity in these characters. Two of them have sex right after a kill, in full view of the drone that's recording everything. The filmmakers allow these characters to approach the upper ledge of the wall without going completely over the top. It’s like watching similar people you can find on the internet everyday. You don’t know whether to laugh at them or cry at whatever (or whomever) it was that led them to this.
Bacurau is like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in that we want to see these assassins get what’s coming to them, and we do. Maybe that’s a guilty pleasure on my part, but I thoroughly enjoyed seeing justice meted out. My favorite scene involves a naked man (Carlos Francisco) tending his garden, hearing someone approaching, and casually going inside his hut to tell his wife, who’s also naked. (Yes, it’s a little heavy-handed to have a naked couple in a garden, etc., but it still works.) The explosion of violence is like something from an S. Craig Zahler movie. But the real purpose of the aftermath is for the man and woman to ask the surviving assassin “Why are you doing this?” Such a questions isn’t out of place. They don’t know and we don’t know. (And, by the way, the translating device they use is very cool.)
Although Bacurau doesn’t necessarily take a moment from history and reinvent it (as in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), it does address many things we can relate to right now, particularly political and governmental attempts to control information, resources, and people. The film may be a direct response to the recent Brazilian political regime, but most non-Brazilians will understand and connect with the story just fine. How can we not understand what’s behind the cooked mayor Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima) and his attempts to control the upcoming election and everyone in the village? It’s significant that Tony Junior is also a relatively young guy. The film doesn’t dwell on this, but I can just imagine that the village possibly had a long line of older politicians that the populace grew tired of, perhaps through corruption or a lack of advancement in better living conditions, technology, etc. Maybe they thought a younger guy (probably an outsider, someone who never grew up in the area) would be the answer. Now they’re stuck with him, although they’re getting along (but certainly not thriving) without his help. There’s much to unpack here, and I’m not even aware of Brazilian politics enough to explore what the filmmakers are actually addressing. But again, you don’t have to be Brazilian to take something significant away from Bacurau.
The film’s ending doesn’t take the easy way out by simply killing the film’s two main villains. Tony’s punishment is far worse than death, both humiliating and effective. As he’s led into his underground prison (which has an unmistakable whiff of Raiders of the Lost Ark), Michael’s final words, “This is only the beginning!” shout out, but we’re all thinking, “Yeah, I don’t think so.” This village is going to survive. We get a hint of this at the village museum, where we see a framed historic newspaper, its headline proclaiming, “Rebellion Quashed in Bacurau.” All the time we spent during the film’s first 40 minutes pays off here as we believe this is a real village populated with real people, not a bunch of extras. Every person in the village, whether they’ve had speaking parts or not, is important. They’re worth something. People matter. If you don’t take care of them, they’ll take care of you. Maybe that’s the most important thing we can carry away from Bacurau. That, and a really wild ride.
How to Watch the Movie
Bacurau is part of Kino Lorber’s new Kino Marquee online exhibition platform. Click on Playdates to find a venue where you can watch the film. I viewed Bacurau via the AFI Silver Virtual Screening Room , where you can find several great current films. You pay for a film rental and have (usually) three to five days to watch it. Although Bacurau is no longer available at the AFI Silver Screening Room, I can highly recommend the Romanian noir thriller The Whistlers (2019). These virtual screening rooms not only bring new films right into your home, they also support the theaters providing them. Let’s make sure we do our part in keeping not only cinema alive, but the theaters as well.
Photos: Box Office Pro, The People’s Movies, Dog and Wolf, BFI, Alternate Ending, Around the World in 14 Films, YouTube, Kino Marquee