Darkly comic tale of resistance
CANNES, France, May 26, (RTRS): Set in the scorching outback of northern Brazil in a small, cut-off town suffering from water shortages, “Bacurau”, is not short of digs at the state of local politics.
But the trippy romp is also a darkly comic tale of resistance against blood-thirsty US invaders, interspersed with sci-fi worthy riffs about drone-wielding killers.
It’s equally, as described by IndieWire critic David Ehrlich, “a wonderful and demented Western about the perils of rampant modernization”.
Like the inhabitants of fictional Bacurau, occasionally seen popping mysterious hallucinogenic pills, viewers are invited to give in to the mash-up, in a movie where some clues are deliberately withheld.
“We actually liked the idea of giving people ‘X’ information … and that you have to work with that information,” director Kleber Mendonca Filho told, asked how to explain the motivations of the film’s human-hunting troupe of killers.
References to Brazilian politics are inevitable, even beyond the twists in the plot line, which include a sleazy mayor trying to buy votes with out-of-date medication.
Mendonca Filho, who was last in Cannes in 2016 with “Aquarius” and paired for this film with co-director Juliano Dornelles, said he was delighted the movie was even selected to compete at a tough time for Brazil’s film industry.
It is just amazing that this film is seeing the light of the day at a time when in fact they are trying to hide culture, Brazilian cultural output,” Mendonca Filho said.
The film kicks off on the road to Bacurau, littered with coffins that have fallen off a truck, before immersing spectators in a funeral dance celebrating the life of a local matriarch.
Soon things start getting even weirder in the dusty town, as mobile phone coverage disappears, Bacurau gets eclipsed from satellite maps, and the killing crew – largely made up of Americans but led by an eery German played by Udo Kier – make their appearance.
“It’s disturbing and messy, a fever dream for a disturbing and messy time in Brazil. And occasionally, it’s a lot of fun, too,” critic Steve Pond wrote for entertainment site The Wrap.
As premises go, this human-poaching scenario promises excitement galore, though co-directors Kleber Mendonca Filho and longtime collaborator Juliano Dornelles overthink it, delivering a visually impressive but unevenly paced thriller that feels as if it’s meant to be analyzed more than enjoyed, and for which footnotes might actually have done more good than subtitles. Though shot in striking anamorphic widescreen and laced with references to John Carpenter, Sergio Leone and the like, “Bacurau” doesn’t quite work in traditional genre-movie terms. Rather, it demands the extra labor of unpacking its densely multilayered subtext to appreciate.
Look up Bacurau on Google Maps, and you won’t find it. There’s a good reason for that: Mendonca and Dornelles invented the town to serve the ultra-cynical political allegory they had in mind (one can imagine people describing a “Bacurau situation” if and when any of the filmmakers’ grim predictions come to pass in the wider world), showing roughly where they imagine Bacurau to be via an elaborate CG opening shot from space. Foreign audiences don’t often get to see this part of the country, which featured in such Brazilian breakouts as “Barren Lives” and “Central Station” but has otherwise been ignored in favor of the country’s more modern metropolises.
“Bacurau” claims to take place “a few years from now” but hardly feels futuristic, owing to the fact that in the sertao, some communities still don’t have running water or electricity, and this particular town has had its limited progress reversed by a corrupt mayor, Tony Jr (Thardelly Lima), who dammed the clean water supply. Even more alarming, early on, the village teacher discovers that Bacurau has been erased from all maps.
It’s one of those “The Matrix”-esque moments – in which plebian characters come to understand that those in control have virtually unchecked power – that really ought to send a chill through audiences.
But for all his skills as a director, Mendonca hasn’t quite mastered tension. He and Dornelles (who art-directed Mendonca’s two previous features, “Aquarius” and “Neighboring Sounds”, stepping up his involvement here) demonstrate a strong aptitude for atmosphere and composition, and yet, their characters feel barely sketched, depending far too heavily on the personas of the actors who play them.
A few early signs point to the significance of a young woman, Teresa (Bárbara Colen), returning to Bacurau for her mother’s funeral, where the town’s drunken doctor, Domingas (Sonia Braga), causes a scene. During Teresa’s approach, gunfire can be heard in the distance, but vague references to “troubles” in the region, plus the surreal early sight of a fatal traffic accident involving a truck loaded with coffins, make it tricky to imagine the massacre unspooling off-screen. Since the filmmakers have chosen to focus on these two women over such action, we might reasonably expect either one to emerge as the film’s heroine, though the movie never really picks a central character.