If the term genre-blurring didn’t exist, it would have to be destined to define Kleber Mendonca Filho’s and Juliano Dornelles’s Brazilian film “Bacurau,” a delirious but distinctive post-modern Western political satire that occasionally uses its anti-colonialism ideology as being a polemic for resistance against conquest. The film can also be read as a combative post-modern satire on the current Brazilian political climate.
One of the most fascinating, thrilling, and messy films to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Filho’s third effort that he has co-directed with newcomer Donrelles, a follow-up to the controversial and bold “Aquarius,” lends reassurance to Filho’s third feature film attempt.
A film in which independent film icon Udo Kier plays a major supporting character, and in which he continues his idiosyncratic sensibilities, surrounded by an ensemble cast of mostly Brazilian players. Though easy to be impressed with the artistry and visuals on display, Kier’s acting, as a mercenary no less, basically amounts to kitsch and deadpan hilarity with outrageous quirks and sensibilities one would expect from the actor. Kier also brings a menace and ultimately a moral compass towards the finale that delivers deep provocations and depth to the material.
The film is also deeply abstract and sprawling in theme, while being grounded in the post-Jair Bolsonaro/Donald Trump era, the film never lacks coherence, focus, and is always resonant in what it’s attempting to explore. The best way to describe “Bacurau” is as a 130-minute absurdist western, in which the characters and scenes play out to many different cinematic influences that would make Quentin Tarantino envious. The film unfolds in a deliberate but equally arbitrary matter that picks up greater momentum and energy during the films second half.
The films first hour is a little frustrating, since there are so many characters living inside a sovereign village that appears to be exiled or has succeeded itself from Brazil. It takes a while to piece together what the film is exactly trying to say, however once elements begin to move forward it is accessible to piece together on a thematic level. The movie is always sprawling and engrossing since the screen is always busy with rich imagery that dangles between pulpy violence and genre mishmashes.
A pastiche or rather a hybrid of genres since Filho and Dornelles’s film is holds hints, references, and images to other works, including Sergio Leone’s “Dollar Trilogy”, Akiria Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo”, and Alejandro Jodorowski’s “El Topo” and “Holy Mountain” with touches of Federico Fellini’s surrealism and Jean Luc-Godard’s political absurdity and idealism. Like the films references, the film is very awe-inspiring in its visual and colorful compositions.
The film opens with a woman Teresa (Barbara Colen) driving down a remote and dusty road. Suddenly, numerous broken caskets litter and block the road from a truck that is transporting them to the local villages. Teresa is on her way to the funeral of her grandmother–who was the local sultan of a small Brazilian village that seems to be succeeded from modern day Brazil. The entire town mourns her death, as the village literally sees itself being erased off the map.
What starts off with abstractions transitions itself into an idiosyncratic Western that holds a lot of impressive set-pieces that consists of a history museum, standoffs, a thrilling climax, and there is even a UFO drone that is always spying on the area. While the film comes off overstuffed, its abstractions and absurdity always resonance. “Bacurau” presents a cautionary tale and dystopian vision of what Brazil is headed towards, the film’s opening title card states “a few years in the future,” the film is indeed making commentaries on the far-right president Bolsonaro and what the fate of the nation can unravel into from the consequences of his policies.
During the course of the film, we see the clinic in the village running scarce in supplies. There is lack of resources and government funding in the community. The village’s doctor Domingas (Sonia Braga) takes the medicine Teresa brought with her from the city. There is even a hilariously satirical scene involving the village’s mayor named Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima) who campaigns and attempts to win over votes in his re-election campaign with addictive opioids, outdated books, and more caskets. Even the water supply is becoming scarce in the village. There is a brilliant scene of a privatized water truck being shot at from the local villagers, the bullet holes end up draining the water tank as the residents desperately fill up their buckets. This is a reminder of the current privatization of water that remains a reality in South American countries.
Tony Jr. attempts to buy votes with gifts is only a distraction just as politicians attempt to do. He ends up giving clearance to a group of American mercenaries that end up killing local villagers to uphold their colonial motivations. The town is off the map, all GPS images are erased from online maps, and all cell phone signals are cut. The townspeople begin to acknowledge they are being conquered over, and this starts a resistance that leads to a bloody revolution.
“Bacurau” is wholly original, and it’s essential in its style and themes. The films visual language of spaghetti westerns and Japanese Samurai pictures only amp up the stylized violence. At the same time there is depth and substance about our modern world, as it taps into the post 2016 political climate of economic anxiety and paranoia, “Bacurau” depicts a village collapsing in which austerity runs supreme and basic human rights of medicine and water do not exist. The sinister Tony Jr., along with the mercenaries fosters unrest, which coalesces a resistance movement within the community to up rise and rebel against the system that is attempting to rule them.
The film holds impassioned views as it should. The Amazon is in ruins, inequality is running rampant in South America, and indigenous populations are pushed to the sidelines by the ruling class. “Bacurua” becomes a Godardian and paradoxical revenge fantasy that will certainly linger and grow in one’s mind upon viewing.