A blood-soaked fever dream set in the arid backcountry of Northeastern Brazil, Bacurau takes place in the near future — a subtitle in the opening scenes describes the action as taking place “a few years from now” — yet it feels as though it could exist at any moment in human history. Co-directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho (Aquarius) and his longtime production designer Juliano Dornelles, Bacurau mashes up elements from the long tradition of global genre cinema to create something utterly new, a story of power and violence that is just as much about our past and present as it is about our future.
Once Upon a Time in Brazil
The film opens in outer space with a credits sequence that harkens back to classic Hollywood science-fiction (indeed, John Carpenter’s Starman was an inspiration), yet with a Brazilian twist in the form of singer Gal Costa crooning “Não Identificado.” The sequence is the perfect set-up for the blend of cultures and genres that is to follow. From the star-filled expanse of space, we travel downward to Earth — specifically, to the area of Northeastern Brazil known as the sertão, a land rich in culture and history with an undercurrent of rebellion. This is where we find the village of Bacurau.
Teresa (Bárbara Colen) is returning home to Bacurau for the funeral of her grandmother Carmelita, a much-loved and respected figure in their little community. Along the way, the water truck in which she is riding comes across a fatal accident involving a cart of coffins, a dead body curled up amidst the splintered ruins littered across the road. It’s an unsettling sight, but it’s not the last thing one sees in Bacurau that sends shivers up one’s spine.
When she arrives in town, Teresa discovers that no one’s phone signals are working. The town doctor, Domingas (the legendary Sônia Braga), is drunk and swaying with grief over the death of her friend, her anguished cries echoing throughout Bacurau. The local mayor shows up with a cartload of old books and expired food and expects to be greeted as a hero for providing these basic amenities, despite refusing to do anything about the community’s lack of water thanks to the damming of a local river. (As a reward for his feeble efforts, he takes one of the local prostitutes with him and advises the madame of the brothel to put it on his tab.) Horses escape from a local farm and come galloping down the empty streets at night, an eerie harbinger of doom. And when Teresa’s father, the schoolteacher Plinio (Wilson Rabelo), attempts to show his students their village on a map on his iPad, Bacurau is nowhere to be found — it’s as though they have been totally isolated and erased by the outside world.
These are not coincidences. A small group of armed mercenaries, led by the chilling Michael (Udo Kier), are descending upon Bacurau, ready to wipe the village out. What follows is literal class warfare, as the resourceful residents of Bacurau refuse to go down without a fight, calling upon the services of a legendary local outlaw named Lunga (Silvero Pereira) and arming themselves with a lot of vintage weapons from their village museum — not to mention some powerful psychedelics. The result is absolutely exhilarating.
In creating Bacurau — an effort that took upwards of a decade — Mendonça and Dornelles were inspired by several documentaries they saw at the Brasília Film Festival in 2009. According to them, far too many of the films that focused on people in small towns were condescending; while well-meaning, these films too often fell into the cliche of making residents of isolated places like the fictional Bacurau appear simple and backward.
In contrast, Mendonça and Dornelles’ vision of Northeastern Brazil is populated with a colorful array of complex characters, embodied by a mix of professional actors and members of local communities who were inspired by the story they were telling and wanted to be a part of it. These extras — though, as the filmmakers aptly noted in a Q&A following the screening I attended, to call them extras is practically an insult, as it implies that these characters served as mere objects or part of the scenery — included a large number of local outcasts, including bohemian artists and members of the LGBTQ community. This diversity shines through onscreen and makes the world of Bacurau all the more richly real.
Bacurau is technically a vision of the future, but the events it chronicles are consistent with the history not just of Brazil, but of the greater Americas and human civilization in general. It is a history of invasion and genocide, power and oppression, race and class. Society expects people to play certain roles, and it expects residents of a town like Bacurau to die off and disappear, to make way for the expansion of the ruling class. But, in Bacurau, we see them fight back, and the resulting bloodshed is richly satisfying.
While the violence in some scenes could be described as extreme, the events that take place in the film don’t feel over-the-top; rather, they feel all too plausible in the Brazil of Bolsonaro. The villainous invaders of Bacurau — white Americans obsessed with their guns and itching to kill off those deemed less than them, as though life is one big racist video game — don’t feel cartoonish, but all too realistic in the United States of Trump. The film’s genre trappings, including a drone that could be easily mistaken for a UFO, make these truths more palatable going down because they place them in a cinematic realm we recognize as fictional, one where Spaghetti Westerns sit alongside Hollywood horror in a pool of blood.
The presence of cult icon Udo Kier as the film’s main villain, pale blue eyes as icy as ever, only further cements Bacurau’s place in the pantheon of genre cinema. (There are also multiple homages to John Carpenter, including a school named after him and the use of a piece of his music on the soundtrack.) Yet the film’s themes follow in the tradition of Brazil’s Cinema Nova, which sought to shine a light on social equality and class unrest in the middle of the twentieth century. That the same issues still plague society today is a sad truth and one that renders Bacurau a film somehow both timely and timeless.
Like last year’s Academy Award-winning Parasite, Bacurau manages to turn the class struggle into inventive entertainment without its overall message losing any of its potency.
What do you think? How familiar are you with Brazilian cinema? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Bacurau was released in theaters in the U.S. on March 6, 2020 and in the UK on March 13, 2020. You can find more international release dates here.
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