Film Review – Bacurau
The Brazilian film Bacurau (2020) is the kind of movie going experience that works best when you know nothing about it walking in. To even write a review would be to risk spoiling the many surprises it has in store for you. A few bits of information: this is an intense, violent, and satirical look into a world where those of little means struggle to survive while members of the upper class look down upon them with disregard. It’s also a vibrant examination of life, with distinct characters and rich textures. Do as little research as you can before going to see it and you will be rewarded. If you wish to know more, then read on – but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Written and directed by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonca Filho, the narrative continuously keeps us on our toes. At first, we believe it involves Teresa (Barbara Colen) returning to her home village of Bacurau to attend her grandmother’s funeral. The entire village has come out to show their respect, including Teresa’s father Plinio (Wilson Rabelo), her former lover Pacote, (Thomas Aquino) and Domingas (Sonia Braga), the local doctor. Immediately, we get a sense of place – in terms of the people, the music, and the customs. Music is heard everywhere; from a single guitar player to PA systems thumping beats from the back of pickup trucks. Often, we hear mention of Bacurau’s museum, which operates as the epicenter of the village’s history and identity.
The peace and serenity of Bacurau is soon disrupted by increasingly mysterious events. Corrupt politicians show up making subtle threats. Natural water supplies have been cut off. GPS maps show the village has disappeared from satellite detection. Cattle begin to behave strangely. One day, a pair of motorcyclists arrive checking out the location and asking strange questions. A rig carrying water shows up with bullet holes shot into the side of the tank. And if those weren’t weird enough, we also get the appearance of…a UFO?
Things become clearer the further into the plot we go. The answers we get are brutal, wild, and insane – all to the benefit of the film. Much of those answers involves Michael (Udo Kier) a guide leading a group of wealthy Americans on a nearby safari. What these people want with Bacurau sets the stage for the main point of tension – a class warfare between the village and foreign invaders. While Teresa acts as our gateway into this world, the narrative is very much an ensemble effort, each member contributing to the potential clash between the two sides. Sonia Braga and Udo Kier step up as two major forces, and their confrontation makes for one of the best scenes.
While the setting takes place ten years into the future, the tone has the feel of an old school western. If we step back and examine the structure of the plot, we can see resemblances to High Noon (1952) or even Seven Samurai (1954), which itself was a western homage. They all feature a town or small community preparing for the inevitable coming of a benevolent entity. Here, the showdown is one of bloody, messy violence. If you are not a fan of gore, this may not be for you. Mendonca and Filho depict the mayhem with the blunt force trauma of a hammer going through a watermelon. The score (Mateus Alves, Tomas Alves Souza) has the synth-tinged stylings of John Carpenter. This is not mere coincidence, the fictional school in Bacurau is named after the famed director.
One of the strengths of cinema is its ability to reflect the issues of real life back to the audience. With the current social environment we now live in, there has been a wave of films examining the inequalities of race and class. Knives Out (2019) discussed how the privilege of the wealthy often masks a hidden xenophobia. Parasite (2019) won the Best Picture Oscar showing the ugly balance between those of different economic standings. Vivarium (2020) – while not a good film – attempted to examine how the conformity of suburban life can turn into a living nightmare. The Platform (2020) was a near-literal depiction of the unequal distribution of wealth and resources. Bacurau belongs within the best of the bunch – a hard-hitting look at a section of society that stood up against those trying to oppress them.
Bacurau has had a unique rollout. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, distributor Kino Lorber has released the film digitally, sharing revenue with independent/arthouse theaters across the country. While this is a good way to get it seen by audiences and to keep theaters afloat, hopefully once the pandemic is over the film will get a chance to go through traditional distribution. With its smart allegorical references, visceral action, and offbeat comedic qualities, it has all the ingredients needed to be a cult classic. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a rollercoaster ride – one that you want to experience again as soon as possible.