Bacurau (2019)

Wow, what a film!

Bacurau is an exciting, fun and weird modern western from Brazil that pulls in elements from thrillers, gangster films and even a tease of sci-fi. Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, it deservedly won the Jury Prize at Cannes. It’s violent, peculiar and very entertaining.

Barbara Colen in Bacurau

It starts as it will inevitably end: with coffins.

Teresa (Barbara Colen) is travelling back to the tiny village of Bacurau a close-knit community in the north-east Sertão or ‘outback’ region of Brazil (an area rarely visited by tourists but occasionally seen in films such as Central Station) amidst verdant mountains, desert and big horizons. The entire village has gathered for the funeral of Teresa’s grandmother Carmelita.

Straight away we know this is no normal village. It’s a close community and for a while we get to savour the characters and their peculiarities. One of its population is an outlaw, Pacote (Thomas Aquino), who has a price on his head. Another is hiding out at the nearby dam. At the funeral the drunken village doctor decries the deceased as a ‘vicious cunt’, before being pulled away, and the grieving relatives process the coffin singing in unison to a recording of a pop ballad.

Bacurau is an interesting town!

But soon an outside threat from a group of wealthy Americans led by Udo Kier will put the lives of the entire population at risk and they will have to defend themselves, perhaps to the death.

Bacurau is very much its own film and has got bags of style and verve, with weird zooms, screen wipes and saturated colours in strong sunlight. Its bizarre situations echo some of the weirder spaghetti westerns, but although it has the subversive, anything-goes attitude of the wilder extents of that genre it’s very difficult to categorise. In that sense, it’s not unlike Cattet and Forzani’s Let The Corpses Tan although Bacurau is less deliberately ‘arty’. The eccentricies, such as a guitarist who drives some tourists away with a song, or even an apparent UFO sighting, are delightful and I was happy to sit back and let the weirdness unfold.

Each of the ensemble cast is interesting and charismatic. There’s no single protagonist, although a few characters take more of the foreground than others. Everyone in the town has their moment and this conveys the strong bonds of this community. The slow start never feels dull, because we enjoy spending time with these people. Some of the standouts include Silvero Pereira as Lunga, the image-conscious violent outlaw whose machete-driven mayhem results in an amusing visual nod to Apocalypse Now. Also fun is Sonia Braga as Domingas, the confident and single-minded doctor who has a particularly delicious late scene opposite Udo Kier.

Sônia Braga and Udo Kier in Bacurau
Sonia Braga and Udo Kier. Braga is perhaps best known in her lead role in 1995’s Kiss of the Spider Woman opposite John Hurt.

The action sequences are sporadic at first but build up to an excellent final showdown. The individual scenes are well paced, often with a sense of humour and allowing some tension to build, but this isn’t a thriller. Much of the action is extremely bloody, sometimes gory, but similarly this isn’t really repulsive or intense like a horror film might be. The directors build up a strong sense of atmosphere, and the initially meandering narrative picks up propulsion and energy throughout towards a tight conclusion.

Perhaps its strongest influence is John Carpenter, a point explicitly acknowledged by naming the town school “João Carpinteiro”, and the directors even included one of his tracks (“Night”, from his recent album Lost Themes) in Bacurau’s soundtrack. The Carpenter film it most resembles is Assault on Precinct Thirteen: not only due to the siege but in its famous approach that nobody is safe from danger, not even children. More generally it matches Carpenters sense of style and of characters who are larger than life.

Sônia Braga and Luciana Souza in Bacurau

The one weakness is the thin characterisation of the white supremacist gang led by Michael (Udo Kier). Kier has been in too many films to mention including the memorably strange psychologist Dr. Frank Mandel in Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Recent highlights include the controversial The Painted Bird, which is also showing at the London Film Festival and S. Craig Zahler’s entertaining slow-burn cop movie Dragged Across Concrete that marked the return of Mel Gibson.

Kier himself is charismatic and interesting of course, but many of the others are two-dimensional and interchangable. They’re portrayed as gun-proud thrill-seeking game hunters for whom the population of Bacurau is their quarry; the kind of people you could imagine proudly sharing social media photos of giraffe trophy kills. It’s a promising idea, but compared to the townsfolk the characters themselves are just not very interesting and too cartoonish. Their English language dialogue is sub-Tarantino but without the timing or self-awareness.

But this is a minor criticism and there’s a good, uncomfortable scene at a dinner table where a couple of Brazilians in the gang are criticised and threatened for their ethnicity and allegiancies – “they look white, but they’re not white…” – that should should certainly stimulate some conversations.

Bacurau directors Juliano Dornelles, Kleber Mendonça Filho and actors Barbara Colen and James Turpin at the London Film Festival screening on 5th October 2019
Bacurau directors Juliano Dornelles, Kleber Mendonça Filho and actors Barbara Colen and James Turpin at the London Film Festival screening on 5th October 2019

The film has been a hit in Brazil where it hit a political nerve. It was received as a deliberate riposte to the right-wing policies and corruption of incumberant president Jair Bolsonaro and at my screening at the London Film Festival there was some lively political rallying cries in Portuguese amongst the excitable crowd as the end credits rolled.

Set in a region beset by drought, the film extrapolates on the current corrupt rationing of the water supply. Like in Chinatown, water is power. Teresa first arrives catching a ride in a water tanker, which is the first target of the besiegers. Later, a dried out water dam makes a spectacular setting, the back story is the water has been diverted to elsewhere. This is a near-future where state executions are televised for the masses and entire towns that don’t vote the right way can literally be taken off the map. By contrast, our heroes live in a strong self-supporting community, where decisions are made by careful democracy, a town with values.

For a foreign viewer like me the film wears its politics lightly, forming a solid backdrop rather than suffocating the narrative. Bacurau is enormous fun and very satisfying. While clearly tipping its hat to a lot of filmic influences, it has its own identity and style. I can’t say I’d want to live in Bacurau, but it’s definitely a fun place to visit.


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