TIFF 2019: Bacurau, by David Bax
Assuming it doesn’t take too long for the shock to wear off that Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius) has, along with co-director Juliano Dornelles, made an unabashed, committed, gory genre movie, it should very quickly become apparent that, for any style of movie, Bacurau is fantastically well-directed. With old-fashioned tropes like wipe transitions and split diopter shots that recall Star Wars and Spaghetti westerns, Bacurau shows us Filho and Dornelles (a less well-known director outside of Brazil who served as production designer on Aquarius) cutting loose. Yet, despite occupying so many B-movie genres at once, this is far from escapism.
Bacurau is a sci-fi, western, shoot ’em up satire that takes place in Brazil’s rural northeast a few years into the future. When the town of Bacurau disappears from online maps and the reliable cellular signal suddenly disappears, the residents soon realize they are under attack from a group of gringo adventure tourists who have paid for the chance to stalk and execute every last townsperson.
This small town has a number of small town problems, including some long held grudges. But many of their challenges are the same ones that a growing number of human beings will confront in the years to come, namely a scarcity of resources, exacerbated by the fact that the wealthier parts of the country receive more attention and funding. When one character offers the advice, “Make the most of life while you have life,” these modern day anxieties make the sentiment less trite and more immediate than it may sound. Dornelles and Filho may give us a couple of ostensible lead characters like prodigal daughter Teresa (Barbara Colen) and semi-reformed gangster Pacote (Thomas Aquino) but, more often than not, the people of Bacurau are presented as a community, in wide shots that include as many of them as possible, standing resolute against their attackers.
That the human hunters come almost exclusively from America and Europe is no accident. Yet the most fascinating wrinkle is the fact that two of them (Karine Teles and Antonio Saboia) are wealthy Brazilians, credited as forasteiras, or outsiders. That definition could just as easily apply to their status within the group of killers (who insist the couple are not white, no matter what they think) as is does to their relation to the people of Bacurau.
As recounted in Petra Costa’s documentary The Edge of Democracy earlier this year, Brazil in the midst of a political crisis that rivals that of the United States, with the ascension of president Jair Bolsonaro, who rivals Donald Trump in narcissistic idiocy. Bolsonaro just this summer threatened the country’s film fund, Ancine. For all of its dire predictions about the near future, one of the more disheartening things about Bacurau is the fact that movies like it might not be made in a few years’ time.