Critically Acclaimed Brazilian Political Exploration is More Than a Genre Exercise.



Admittedly, the widely admired and critically acclaimed Bacurau is not what I thought it would be.  Which is perfectly okay… just a little surprising.  While most other reviews have been avoided (as to not color whatever my own opinion of the film would be), certain blurbs throwing around terms like “Western” and “Sergio Leone” have proven impossible to miss.  

Upon finally seeing the film, it’s immediately obvious that the fore-fatherly names “Sam Peckinpah” or “Arthur Penn” would’ve been more accurate.  There’s a purity of fallen grit in the Brazilian Bacurau that, despite Leone’s many ingenious attributes, doesn’t lie in keeping with his Cinema of Revered Badassery.  Only Leone’s later epic, Once Upon a Time in America, falls somewhat in line with the cultivated discomfort and social commentary going on here.  Though those having been pull-quoted (and those opting to do the pull-quoting) may brandish a lazy knowledge of film history, the makers of Bacurau thankfully are well versed, leaning not on some osmosis-derived notion of the postmodern Western, but sincerely authentic.  The question then becomes, is this the most authentic aspect of the emotionally remote Bacurau?

Directors Kleber Mendonça Filho (Aquarius) and Juliano Dornelles prove to be thoroughly united in their keen commitment to running certain socio-political truths and cultural injustices through a broad filter of genre.  There is of course the aforementioned Western aesthetic in the mix in the form of an oppressed, isolated community that is pitted against deadly outsiders. The dynamic of the band of armed English-speaking invaders resembles that of a heist crew in a crime film.  A flying saucer even shows up a couple of times.  (An inclusion of diminishing returns).  

Vitally though, the core foundational ideology behind all of it is a distended Trump-ian notion of American exceptionalism runneth over into unfettered bloodlust.  For the small pack of well-armed killers (led by a perfectly cast Udo Kier), it’s not enough for the denizens of a place like the fictional Bacurau to go back to where they came from- they might as well be exterminated.  Vintage weaponry and para-military posturing is the veneer.  Headsets, flak vests, cool glasses, whatever.  For one woman of the group, the perverse sexual thrill of the kills that she feels are too big of a turn-on to not momentarily give into it. 

If the notion of violence-addicted self-gratified Americans looking to take out “foreigners” on their own soil for sport sounds far-fetched, you haven’t been paying close enough attention to the real world.  If it strikes you as too close to home and sickens you, congratulations, you have a soul.  Which, frankly, might be more than can be easily said about Bacurau, as it opts to wear its own observational detachment as a calling card to anyone willing to come along and invest their own moral consciousness into hashing out the knottiness presented.  Indeed, there are layers to what’s happening here.  Though the impoverished town of itself Bacurau has been scrubbed from electronic mapping systems and the people find themselves to be hunted, this is not a culture innocent of its own history of violence.  Yes, they will lean into it.

The Peckinpah flavor of it all is furthered in that Bacurau is shot with vintage Panavision anamorphic lenses, imbuing a subconscious vibe reminiscent of the compelling discomfort of The Wild Bunch or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.  Though the film takes place a few years in the future, creative and technical flourishes such as this that grant it the cinematic verisimilitude that elevate Bacurau above and beyond much of the rest of the fray.  Kino Lorber’s extras-packed Blu-ray of this Portuguese and English language film is an impressive package.  Here is the official rundown of the disc’s very welcome wealth of added-value content:

-Bacurau on the Map, a making-of documentary by Kleber Mendonça Filho (60 minutes) 

-Deleted Scene 

-Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles and Sonia Braga in conversation (courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center) 

-Booklet essay by film critic Fabio Andrade 

-New interview with Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles 

Mens sana in corpore sano (2011, a short film by Juliano Dornelles) 

-Theatrical trailer

The Lincoln Center conversation is terrifically insightful and mercifully brief (and free of inane audience questions) in comparison to similar inclusion on past DVDs and Blu-rays that overstay their welcome.  Dornelles’s Mens sana in corpore sano is a very curious inclusion; a methodical twenty-one wordless minutes spent with a weightlifter and various unexplained oddities that occur in his sphere.  It too gets uncomfortably sexual and bloodily.  It is, to date, Dornelles’s only other directing credit.  The hour-long making-of, Bacurau on the Map, takes a fly-on-the-wall approach to the process of creating this rather large production.  The interview segments with the filmmakers are more directly clarifying about their ambitious intents with Bacurau.

The cast members, playing as a true ensemble, are well selected, selling the filmmakers’ high concept every step of the way.  Sônia Braga (the star of the aforementioned Aquarius and longtime veteran of screen acting) also stars, playing an eccentric but compellingly cryptic villager.  She, along with the carefully selected other talent, bring about the community of this made-up village of Bacurau- its citizenry, their customs, and their collective history.  (The town has no functioning church, but there is a small history museum that is of great importance- indicative of exactly where salvation must lie in this film).  The film is a hard-bitten bitter pill, uneven by design; heavy handed by necessity.  The whole thing seems to far more Cannes than Fantastic Fest.  (It did indeed premiere at the former festival in 2019). Those heading into Bacurau looking for a flurry of post-Tarantino badassery to yalp over will do well to continue to the next town.