After his two mysterious, tightly-coiled and idiosyncratic first features, Neighbouring Sounds and Aquarius, the masterful Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho lets his hair down with an exhilarating, all-guns-blazing venture into genre.
Bacurau is equal parts spaghetti western, ultra-violent horror and political conspiracy, with a dash of sci-fi for good measure. While playing homage to John Carpenter, Sergio Leone and Eastwood, among others, it also evokes a rich period of Brazil’s own film lore and, as ever with Filho, offers commentary on current political and social turmoil in his country. This may be a cross-over crowd-pleaser, but it also feels like his most Brazilian film yet.
In fact, this time around Filho is co-writing and directing with his production designer from the earlier films, Juliano Dornelles, and it’s reasonable to assume that the partnership informs the new direction.
The pair start slyly, keeping their cards tight to their chest. The handsome widescreen vista introduces the arid Brazilian hinterland known as the sertão. While a caption announces that this is “a few years from now”, the setting is one that has always represented the social divisions in Brazil’s history; the inhabitants of the sertão have invariably been abused, or forgotten altogether by the powers that be.
Bacurau becomes the archetypal western village that must protect itself from malevolent outsiders
A young woman, Teresa (Bárbara Colen) returns to her home village of Bacurau for the funeral of her grandmother. It feels like she’s entering a place in the early stages of siege. On the way in, a truck has spilled a number of empty coffins into the road, its driver dead beside them. The nearby dam has been blocked, leaving Bacurau dangerously short of water. Bandits are operating in the hills, whose murderous, anti-Establishment raids are watched by the villagers on social media. Theresa herself is delivering much-needed medical supplies.
Despite the problems, the tone in these early scenes is infused with the musical, amiable spirit one associates with Brazil. Even when the corrupt mayor, Tony Junior, clearly responsible for blocking the dam, brazenly arrives in town to canvas votes for the upcoming election, there’s a comic air to the way the villagers treat him.
But this will be more than a genial and eccentric tale of a backwater town battling against corruption. Filho likes to operate on a slow-burn fuse, and the underlying tension here ever so slowly cranks up. Bacurau suddenly disappears from the satellite map, at the same time as the wireless signal vanishes; a drone, with the amusing appearance of a flying saucer, starts following people; a truck delivering water arrives with gunshot holes; a neighbouring farm’s horses gallop through the streets.
And then two motorcyclists, a man and woman in ridiculously garish gear, ride in and start asking questions. “What are inhabitants of Bacurau called?” asks one, to which a boy answers, “People.” The battle lines are drawn right there, and it’s not long after this that the bodies start piling up and Bacurau becomes the archetypal western village that must protect itself from malevolent outsiders, here a motley group of English-speaking sociopaths who have paid for the privilege of a human safari.
What follows is brutal, bloody and often very weird, the latter fact rubberstamped by the appearance of Udo Kier, whose exotic otherness has graced innumerable B-movies for decades, and here leads the hunt with a particularly nonchalant viciousness.
The villains’ sub-Tarantino dialogue and exuberantly over-the-top violence account for the film’s least convincing or appealing moments. It comes into its own as the villagers, led by those aforementioned bandits and with the assistance of a large supply of psychotropic drugs, show that they’re not going to just lay down for the westerners. Kier and co really should have done some preliminary research in Bacurau’s history museum.
Indeed, the film is informed by the sense of Brazilian history repeating itself, whether it’s the persecution of the sertão or the current president trying to whitewash the deeds of the country’s former military dictatorship. And there’s a nice contemporary update on the battles between bandits and landowners in the country’s revolutionary Cinema Novo films of the Sixties and Seventies, when filmmakers were finding inventive ways to comment on that repression.
It’s richly designed and shot, from the funeral procession and other community gatherings, to the orchestration of the village for its western climax, with stunning details along the way, not least a child’s bloodstained clothes hanging on a washing line in the scorching sun. Music adds to the genre twists (notably the use of John Carpenter’s own electronic composition, ‘Night’) as do little touches in the editing, such as the wipes as a form of scene transition, most famously used by George Lucas in Star Wars.
Aside from Kier, the only familiar face in the cast is that of the legendary Sonia Braga, who starred in Aquarius and here offers sometime comic relief as the village’s doctor and most combative drunk, who uses first-hand experience in her advice to patients.
“Migraine, nausea, feeling like death,” moans one teenager after the funeral. “That’s a hangover…. Vomit. More water. And vomit again.”
This review first appeared on The Arts Desk website