What you need to know
'Bacurau' starts with a truckload of coffins spilled across the road and ends with a burial. It's a wild tale well told.
2020 is off the rails. If the usual escapist distractions no longer seem to distract, don’t worry: Bacurau has you covered.
From Brazilian co-writer-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, and backed by eight production companies, Bacurau is a genre-bending western that starts with a truckload of coffins spilled across the road and ends with a burial. (This is not a spoiler.)
The story is set in the fictional rural northern Brazilian community of Bacurau, essentially a frontier town, whose welcome sign says, “If you come, come in peace.” Almost no one obeys.
Bacurau has an accomplished diaspora, but it still treats its “gigolos and whores” as human beings. Many of these people have gathered at the funeral of the town’s matriarch, and the psychotropic drug they take brings magical-realist hallucinations. They hallucinate of water, which they lack because the government has diverted it to other purposes. Instead, a water truck makes daily runs.
The mayor of their municipality (Thardelly Lima) comes campaigning and is castigated for doing nothing about the water situation. He then has the gall to purchase the services of sex worker Sandra (Jamila Facury) against her will, taking her with him and, under pressure from the town, promising to return her unharmed. When we see her walk back into town, we’re not sure that he’s kept his word.
One day, the water truck arrives leaking from bullet holes, though the driver had noticed nothing. The local schoolteacher (Wilson Rabelo) discovers that Bacurau has disappeared from online maps and satellite imagery. Then things really start to get weird. (Is that a flying saucer?)
The scope of the film is much larger than we anticipate. The only hint I’ll give is that perennial European villain Udo Kier is in the opening credits and, to my knowledge, Kier doesn’t speak Portuguese.
The rural town is connected to the wider world through digital devices. A tablet syncs up with the classroom computer, and cell phones convey outpost reports from the town limits.
It’s this technology that gives the bad guys their opening. Two outsiders (Karine Teles and Antonio Saboia) in full motorbike kit ride into town for seemingly no reason. They enter a shop and buy a drink, and we (but not the town) see them plant a cell phone jamming device. The shopkeeper suggests a visit to the local museum. They should have listened.
Deliberate pacing (edited by Eduardo Serrano) and almost exclusive use of ambient lighting (cinematography by Pedro Sotero) make the town feel lived in and bring the characters to life. We get a deep sense of the town’s ethos in how it deals with the expired supplies and addictive mood inhibitors that the mayor leaves as an insulting campaign bribe (along with a truckload of books dumped in the street): The doctor (Sônia Braga) gives the expected warnings at a town meeting, but she lets the townsfolk decide for themselves what to take.
The film’s unrushed tempo creates a simmering, uncanny tension, augmented by having our perspective limited at first to only what the town learns. Bacurau resembles Mandy in that we’re not quite sure we can believe what we’re seeing.
We follow the bikers as they leave, and the film's perspective expands to include the antagonists. It lets us in on what will happen next, even if the why of it all is only disclosed in the denouement. We shift from “What’s going to happen?” to “Did that really just happen?” Though this is inevitable if the film is to make sense, it happens too early, depriving subsequent developments of much of their tension.
If we’re going to spend time with the bad guys, then we might as well get to know them. This is the film’s other shortcoming: Their motivation is so outlandishly unconvincing that it has to be hedged with an opening placard that sets the film “in the near future.” There’s a sociopolitical critique here, but it’s blunted by the overly broad allegory. Not even Bolsonaro has stooped so low (yet, fingers crossed).
Another problem with Bacurau is its climax. Whatever tension is left doesn’t so much explode as leak out. People die, but not as many as we hope, and the deaths are deflated by the directors’ questionable choice to cut from a cause (gunfire) to an ambiguous reaction shot first, before giving us the effect (dead person).
And yet, these faults pale in comparison to the auspicious first half. As the credits roll, the general feeling is of a wild tale well told.
TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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