A town - Bacurau - disappears from the map in this Brazilian mix of socio-political commentary with genre influences
Dir: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles. Brazil, France. 2019. 132 mins
A one-street town in the scrubby badlands – or sertão – of northeastern Brazil, Bacurau finds itself suddenly erased from digital maps and satellite imagery in this ambitious combination of socio-political denouncement and gung ho genre assault. It’s a community under threat – but from whom? The near-future setting gives this picture a subtle sci fi filter, but equally, Bacurau is filmmaking that puts a distinctive spin on classic genres – there’s an obvious nod to the Western here, and also to the Brazilian cangaço (bandit) movies of the 50s and 60s.
Bacurau is a capsule example of the economic colonisation of Brazil by the US and Europe, and of American cultural dominance
With its brutally striated social divisions and a simmering violence, both written into the historical DNA of the region and bubbling over into everyday life, the film is a bracingly confrontational commentary on the direction the country is taking in the Bolsonaro era. Propulsive storytelling doesn’t come at the expense of the vividly sketched personality of the community, although there are a couple of key characters who might have warranted a little more fleshing out.
Long-term collaborators as director and production designer respectively, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles now share writing and directing credits on this, a project which has been gestating since 2009. But despite its decade in development, Bacurau has a stinging timeliness and anger which should recommend it to politically engaged arthouse audiences. Likewise, further festival interest will be a given.
The name of the town – Bacurau – has several meanings in Portuguese: it’s a nocturnal bird and it’s also the last chance to make it home at night. This is just one of several details which might partially or fully elude the non-Brazilian audience. What will be a more universal theme is the sense of spirited rebellion by the powerless against those who aim to exploit them, perhaps even destroy them. There’s a kinship with Mendonça Filho’s previous picture, Aquarius, in which Sonia Braga’s Clara is a persistent thorn in the side of the property developer who would see her evicted from her home. But while Clara armed herself with words, the people of Bacurau favour guns and extremely strong psychotropic substances.
Perhaps the boldest decision by the filmmakers is to make this an ensemble piece with no central character to act as our through line in the story. Although some roles intermittently come to the fore – Sonia Braga’s fiery local doctor Domingas; notorious killer Pacote (Thomas Aquino); mythic gender fluid outlaw Lunga (Silvero Pereira) and Udo Kier, as a characteristically deranged antagonist are all notable – in fact, it’s the character of the community as a whole which leaves the most distinctive impression.
Bacurau is a capsule example of the economic colonisation of Brazil by the US and Europe, and of American cultural dominance. The far-reaching, eclectic music choices reflect this – smoochy Brazilian standards by Caetano Veloso and Geraldo Vandré coexist with John Carpenter’s dystopian electronic work, Night. One strikingly odd scene is soundtracked Spandau Ballet’s soft-cheese ballad, True.
Bacurau may be a tiny place and perhaps nobody would notice if it dropped off a map, but through long, clamouring and busy takes which are packed with vibrant detail, Mendonça Filho and Dornelles give the sense of a vital, thriving, unified town. It’s a place worth fighting for.
Production companies: SBS Productions, Cinemascopio Producoes
International sales: SBS International firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt
Screenplay: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles
Editing: Eduardo Serrano
Cinematography: Pedro Sotero
Production design: Thales Junqueira
Music: Mateus Alves, Tomaz Alves Souza
Main cast: Sonia Braga, Udo Kier, Barbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Thardelly Lima, Rubens Santos, Wilson Rabelo, Jonny Mars, Alli Willow, James Turpin, Julia Marie Peterson, Brian Townes, Charles Hodges, Chris Doubek