(Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles, Brazil/France, 2019)


In an interview with Cahiers du cinéma (no. 758, September 2019), Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, co-directors of this film, are at pains to assert the need to “state the obvious”. There’s no room for subtlety, let alone timidity in the age of Trump and Bolsonaro! A large mass of people are starving and deprived of basic resources, while the abyss between classes just keeps growing. The filmmakers sketch an alarming Brazilian production context in which even their trailer met advance criticism for “showing too many poor people”. And they go on to elaborate the extent to which their invented fiction (developed over a 10-year period) either drew from reality or spookily anticipated it – ranging from the “erasure” of certain places from the cyber-maps, to the thrill-killing of impoverished citizens by law enforcers.


So Bacurau states – and re-states, many times over – the obvious. Despite the claims of Camille Bui in her Cahiers review, I don’t see many shades of grey in the opposition between the no-nonsense but finally rather angelic inhabitants of the menaced, de-privileged town of Bacurau (a composite place invented for the film) in the country’s Northeast, Pernambuco region, and the totally horrible band of hunters led by a snarling Udo Kier (even though he does look great at 75!). Beyond the fact that these dudes (including several Very Ugly Americans) are racist, sexist, vile, sadistic, exploitative and in cahoots with high-level political power, their Most Dangerous Game-like mission is never really explained, or makes much sense. Cold-blooded, survivalist tourist package? Mercenaries of the State? Who knows?


Mendonça & Dornelles (the former’s art director on previous efforts) eschew such explanations – they are going for the assertive purity of an American-style genre piece, as only true cinephiles ever can. (A close comparison can be made with the work of Bong Joon-ho on this level.) A roughly Western or Mad Max  (the original, as the filmmakers specify!) premise is spliced  – as Brazilian cinema has often done, à la Glauber Rocha – with local traditions and mythologies. This is especially true of the figure of the cangaceiro or outlaw bandit, here incarnated by the scary but somehow righteously noble, machete-wielding character of Lunga (Silvero Pereira) – the climactic machete bit taking Bacurau away from Classical Hollywood and more toward Robert Rodriguez, alas. Bacurau is a fable of populist revenge, all the way down the line, and it will work for you or not depending on how you respond to that level of it. I wanted to like it more than I finally did.


The film is, for a long time, a slow burn – the directors were wise to cut an even more extended intro in which the nominal heroine, Teresa (Bárbara Colen), gradually made her way to Bacurau from the centre of Recife. But it’s important that the film take its time (once it has deftly decentred attention away from Teresa) to establish the life of this imagined, somewhat Utopian community: everybody is interconnected, the common good is always in sight, people share and care for each other. It’s the total flip side to the paranoiac, fragmented, ultra-walled and privatised, urban lifestyle depicted in Mendonça’s previous films, such as the mightily impressive Neighbouring Sounds (2012). Here it’s all open air and natural landscape, citizens passing along objects, news, looks and gifts from hand to hand, mouth to ear.


Even the excessive element of this community – represented by a wonderfully angry Sônia Braga as local doctor Domingas – can be folded back into its “heterogeneous” multitude without much fuss or bother. And, thanks to a nearby outpost held by another tough-as-guts lady, the folk of Bacurau even know when strangers are approaching – and exactly how many minutes it will take them to reach the spot.


Cinema really kicks in when this tangible, physical sense of community is communicated via its absence (reminding me, distantly, of a great set-piece in Robert Aldrich’s The Angry Hills [1959]): the seeming disappearance (actually, stealthy hiding) of the entire community when, first, an unlovely politician (Thardelly Lima as Tony Jr) appears with his megaphone (“The water problem can be resolved, sure!”) and later, more dramatically, when Kier and his snipers (who are significantly “split up” and atomised) occupy the margins and prowl around inside the town.


The way these locals gradually reveal and defend themselves is pure John Carpenter material, at least in that filmmaker’s “Hawksian” mode – and a borrowed, throbbing Carpenter synth tune takes pride of place on the soundtrack, alongside various other passing homages to his rugged style and method of action-genre-entertainment. I must say, though, that – at least in this case – I prefer the more original and full-blooded twist on the Carpenter legacy offered by, say, Jean-François Richet, and not only in his canny  Assault on Precinct 13 remake of 2005.


© Adrian Martin 24 December 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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