One of the problems of being a writer is that – when you spend all day making things up – you can sometimes see story beats from a mile away, stretched out like a long silhouette across the desert sand.
Which is why it’s so refreshing when a film comes along that so thoroughly drives its narrative out of a genre’s ruts, while still giving the occasional backwards nod to what has gone before.
From director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Aquarias) and production designer turned co-director Juliano Dornelles, Bacurau is billed as a weird west spaghetti western that focuses on a fictional town in the sertão – the remote hinterland of north-eastern Brazil – called Bacurau (“nighthawk)”, which finds its existence threatened by outside forces.
If that sounds vague, it’s because I don’t want to give too much away. Part of the joy of this film was not knowing what was coming. But from that pitch, you might expect to meet the usual western revenge or last-stand themes, maybe the Technicolor violence and bloodshed of Corbucci, or the larger than life characters and bleak humour of Leone. And the thing is, you’d be right. All of these elements are present in Bacurau, but they’re handled with such freshness, verve, narrative ferocity and overall confidence, that they produce something remarkable from well-trodden ground: a truly original western.
Whenever people talk about the re-invention of the western, this is the sort of film I’ve been hoping for, from two filmmakers who aren’t afraid to pull the genre apart, take what they want and shake it together with their own ideas.
“We subscribe to the genre, but we don’t fully respect it.”Kleber Mendonça Filho
One of Bacurau’s greatest strengths is how assured it is. The film opens with cool-headed Teresa (Bárbara Colen), a medic from the city who is returning to her small, remote hometown for the funeral of her grandmother Carmelita: the matriarch of Bacurau.
From the get-go, Teresa’s journey is packed with ominous foreshadowing. She travels in a water truck: Bacurau’s supply has been cut off by a corrupt damming operation, which in turn is being challenged by a mysterious bandit and hero-of-the-people, Lunga. On the drive, Teresa passes a traffic accident, where a lone motorcyclist lays dead while a truck has spilled its cargo of coffins onto the road.
Teresa brings with her a vital store of medicines for the isolated community, which is underserved and misused by slimy local politician Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima). On her arrival in Bacurau, one of the old-timers immediately places a homemade hallucinogenic pill onto her tongue: an act that draws her straight back into the communal rituals of the self-sufficient, tightly-knit town.
Soon, it becomes clear that something strange is happening. The water truck arrives filled with bullet holes, and Teresa’s father, a teacher, realises that the town has been erased from online maps, and instead must show the children its location on a paper map in the schoolroom. Then, phone signal disappears, the classic herald of bad times to come. And here’s where the directors show their confidence, because although Teresa is our way in to Bacurau, we don’t stay with her. The narrative point of view widens, taking in the experiences of multiple inhabitants, then their enemies and outsiders in a way that serves the story without ever losing focus.
We’re not given much detail about the wider world itself, which is good because we simply don’t need it. The opening screen tells us the narrative is set “a few years from now”, in a world where revenge murders, such as those committed by Teresa’s lover Pacote/Acacio (Thomas Aquino) are commonplace, and political corruption is rife. Rather than spend time on unnecessary world-building, the filmmakers focus on what is important: the community of Bacurau itself and the threat it faces.
“Have you seen the town museum?” characters repeatedly ask the foreigners, foreshadowing both their pride in the region, and the ultimate importance this building plays, both in the narrative and in the life of the town as a site of remembrance and resistance.
Based on quilombos – settlements formed by Africans who escaped enslavement in the 1600s, Dornelles has commented that the town of Bacurau is:
“a micro-representation of Brazil. We have many different ethnicities. It was very important to us, because it’s a film about the community. There are no leading roles, there are many important characters. So if they are very different from each other, it’s more interesting.”
The characters we encounter are indeed vivid and memorable; from actor and celebrated drag performer Silvero Pereira, who steals the show as the queer bandit-leader Lunga, to Brazilian super-star Sônia Braga as Domingas, the town’s alcoholic, courageous doctor. Alongside professional actors, the directors peopled the town with locals from the area where the film was shot, especially recruiting those who were seen as “outcasts” or misunderstood in their own communities.
Contrary to the somewhat homogeneous villagers of, say, The Magnificent Seven, Dornelles and Mendonça Filho show us the opposite: that Bacurau is a community of individuals. They bicker, quarrel, get drunk, laugh, grieve, and ultimately fight together. The town feels vivid, gritty and realistic, in stark contrast to the dislocated sterility and psychopathic posturing of the antagonists – made up of a proto-Nazi (Udo Kier) and a collection wealthy white people from the northern hemisphere – who threaten Bacurau’s existence.
It was during the scenes when the action switches to the antagonists – and the dialogue into English – that I felt that the film was teetering on the edge of being heavy-handed, before I realised that these were essential parts of the whole. The brash shift in tone reflects the film’s wider themes; compared to the people of Bacurau, the antagonists are shallow and empty, spouting their own exposition and leaning into tropes. It’s all part of the film’s repeated upending of the conventions of the western, and of Hollywood.
Bacurau has been called “blunt political satire”, and yes, the film takes on themes of class, political corruption, greed and the violent legacy of colonialism with rage and ferocity. It is blunt at times, but it’s also lyrical, surprising, tender, darkly funny, bloody and brutal. It’s a film in dialogue with Brazil’s current political reality that remains cinematic. It absolutely refuses to be one thing, and is so much better for it.
Mendonça Filho has spoken before about how John Carpenter’s lower budget films, like Assault on Precinct 13, made film-making seem possible to him as a young teenager. Look closely and you’ll see nods all over the place; the school in Bacurau is named “João Carpinteira”, and the claustrophobic final fight sequences pay definite homage to Precinct 13. There are also Star Wars-esque screen-swipes and Seven Samurai-style choreography. The cinematography by Pedro Sotero ranges from taut and focused action, to long, lingering shots of the dusty sertão, or the vast, fortress-like walls of Lunga’s base in the disputed dam.
The directors and Sotero chose to shoot the film in super wide screen, using Panavision anamorphic lenses to invoke 1970s American cinema and capture the broad vistas typical of the western genre, but also because they imagined the film as a full-scale, cinematic audience experience. Unfortunately, this ambition was hampered somewhat, thanks to Covid-19. I watched Bacurau projected onto my bedroom wall, but I sincerely hope that one day, I’ll be able to see the film on the big screen in all its glory.
Because Bacurau deserves it. Not only is it one of my favourite films of the year, it’s the best western I’ve seen in a long time.
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