Bacurau (2019)

Bacurau first published by

“Bacurau has always been here,” says old Plinio (Wilson Rabelo), puzzled at his town’s sudden disappearance from the satellite map on his smartphone and computer. “It should be right here. Bacurau has always been on the map.”

In a sense, Bacurau’s absence is a metaphor. After all it is a utopia (a term coined by Sir Thomas More from the Greek for ‘no place’) – a Never-never Land invented by co-writers/co-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho (Aquarius, 2016) and Juliano Domelles for their film of the same name. In the first third of Bacurau, as Plinio’s daughter Teresa (Bárbara Colen) returns to her hometown for the funeral of her 94-year-old grandmother Carmelita, we are introduced to a place that “has always been” and “should be” – a matriarchal haven of socialist principles and communitarian ideals, where food and medicines are distributed according to need not greed, where sex and drugs are freely available, where everyone gets along and supports one another, where the church is always open (even if it is used mostly for storage) and where doctors, prostitutes, teachers, musicians, farmers and bandits all live on an equal footing. It is also a place that the Bolsonaros and Trumps of this world – the enthusiasts of neoliberalism, philistinism, authoritarianism, racism and untrammeled capitalism – regard as easy prey for their rapacious exploitation, and would happily see obliterated from the map. 

Although the village fast establishes itself as an idyll, it also quickly becomes clear that there is trouble in paradise. Corrupt mayoral candidate Tony Jr (Thardelly Lima) has closed the dam upriver, cutting off Bacurau’s water supply – and although Erivaldo (Rubens Santos) keeps bringing water in his truck, someone has taken pot shots at it. Old Damiano (Carlos Francisco) spots a UFO-like drone flying and spying overhead. The horses from Manelito’s nearby farmstead come galloping riderless into the town’s centre at night. Two strangers have been seen motoring around on trail bikes. And then there is the mystery of why Bacurau has vanished from the map. After several corpses – the victims of random violence – are discovered, one-time freedom-fighting killer Pacote (Thomas Aquino) brings out of hiding the Che Guevara-like outlaw Lunga (Silvero Pereira), who immediately realises, “We’re under attack”, and digs deep into the town’s history of collective resistance, hidden in plain sight beneath its main street and yet written clearly enough on the walls of the local museum (at least for anyone curious enough to enter).

Though ostensibly set “a few years from now”, Filho and Domelles’ film comes with a quality that is both timeless and entirely contemporary. The clash of ideologies that it stages, as a group of paying American outsiders (led by Udo Kier’s extravagantly amoral Michael) moves in to turn this sweet little village into a hunting ground for their own perverse entertainment, is presented all at once as dusty oater, a Mad Max 2-style dystopia, a John Carpenter-esque siege picture (a school seen in the film is named ‘João Carpinteiro’), and a southern variant on The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Meanwhile the locals, high on psychotropics and well used to defending their home from centuries of predatory incursions, are ready to take a stand against those who would oppress, exploit, objectify or otherwise curtail their balanced way of life.

So Bacurau achieves the impossible. It is, simultaneously, an engrossing action film and a political allegory. It brings together the most cynical and the most laudable of human behaviours. Respectful of local communities (most of the inhabitants of the village Barra where it was shot also served as extras and crew), it represents, in both form and content, a real, rebellious rejoinder to Bolsonaro’s vicious raids on culture and communism. It is a big, brassy genre showdown and a rambunctious piece of agitprop, putting on the map a place that, without really existing, remains a microcosm of anywhere with the will to speak truth softly to power, and to carry a big machete.  

Summary: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Domelles use a tiny Brazilian village as rambunctious microcosm for acts of collective resistance to predatory authoritarianism.

© Anton Bitel