Colonial violence finds new form in this fresh Brazilian Western
Words by Ruairí McCann / @langsmonkey
Udo Kier in 'Bacurau' (2020)
Set in an unspecified near future, directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ Bacurau starts with one perspective that soon spreads to encompass a whole community. The seed is a young woman called Teresa (Bárbara Colen), who returns home to the eponymous village, located remote in the Sertão—Brazil’s bone-dry outback that canvases the country’s north east. She’s here to bring medicine but also to attend the funeral of her grandmother, the village matriarch. While it’s been set adrift by her departure, Filho and Dornelles give us a shallow yet sharply defined reading of this community’s character: an egalitarian congregation of “bricklayers and scientists… gigolos and whores” that live and work communally in a free minded and sexually liberated air. Its fluid leadership includes local doctor Domingas, played with a caring severity and vocal fry rasp to match by Sônia Braga, and Teresa‘s father, Plinio (Wilson Rabelo), the village teacher, intellectual, and collective conscience.
Bacurau is led by the sword too, as represented by another prodigal child. Acacio, or “Pacote” (Thomas Aquino), is a hitman laying low, whose activities have brought him local fame and influence. His introductory scene, where his affability is intercut with brief flashbacks to his pistol and a kill, neatly sums up a man not conflicted or hypocritical in his simultaneously held belief in community and violence. Instead, coming from a land with a long history of opposition and the tradition of the cangaço—the socially conscious bandit—the two are deemed reconcilable.
Almost as soon as a sense of place is set, it is turned upside-down by strange happenings. First the village is taken off the map and the phone signal goes. Then a herd of horses are let loose and a pair of strangers show up on motorcycles. They are the heralds of a foreign threat: a squad of heavily armed white Americans, Europeans, and eager to please White Brazilians, on a human safari hunt to satiate a middle-managerial bloodlust. They are played mostly and slightly woodenly by expatriates with the exception and standout being Udo Kier as their leader, Michael. Sporting a cruel and aloof crystalline gaze—like a reptilian about to lazily lap up its prey—and giving line readings savoured with a staccato rhythm, Kier gives an expert rendition of what is by now his speciality—the eccentric Teutonic villain. With his and their sights set on Bacurau, a cataclysm is inevitable, proceded by a steady stream of violence which Filho and Dornelles stage with throat-clenching directness and viscera.
The latter, along with the use of zooms, wipes, and crossfades to complement otherwise unfussy compositions, bears the influence of late 20th century American genre deans such as John Carpenter—including an explicit needle drop—and, to a lesser extent, Walter Hill. The western looms large in the setting’s pictorial similarity to the frontier west, exemplified by the cinemascope framing of its sun-baked, wide open vistas, and the use of the template plot of a community forced to defend itself against a band of marauding outlaws.
Bacurau, then, is a genre hybrid, one that functions in context with Brazilian cinema’s relationship to genre and the country's particular social geography. The latter's modern conception can be traced to Euclides da Cunha's epic feat of journalism and sociology, Os Sertões / Rebellion in the Backlands, a 1902 account of the fall of Canudos. It’s a city in the northern state of Bahia founded by Antônio Conselheiro, a self-declared prophet whose proselytising and agitation accumulated 30,000 followers. Their separatism was met by the government with a series of “military engagements” between 1896 and 1897, which eventually led to the community’s destruction and the slaughter of most of its inhabitants.
This account shepherded a long-held dichotomy between a south and an Atlantic coast dotted with cosmopoli, where wealthy European descendants rule atop clear-cut hierarchies and a northern interior populated by the multi-racial sons and daughters of runaway slaves and indigenous peoples, impoverished and lawless communities. For "Cinema Nuovo", an overtly political “clear the old to pave way for the new” style movement which emerged in the 1960s to counter mainstream Brazilian cinema, the North became a common site for examining Brazil's injustices. As well as a possible source of models for civilisation judged freer than the country's succession of oppressive regimes.
Filho and Dornelles are influenced by this movement but have also expressed frustration with its restrictive afterlife. Stating in multiple interviews that its lens, one influenced by cinematic and literary modernism and concerned with realism, has been taken by succeeding filmmakers as sacred—the only valid form of depicting and interrogating societal ills. It is why the pair would sooner align themselves with José Mojica Marins, a figure who emerged in the 1960s with a series of horror films that challenged the mores of Brazilian society and Catholicism specifically. Rather than sober and modern, his films are pungently gothic and led by the melodramatically nihilistic presence of Marins himself—playing his alter ego Zé do Caixão or "Coffin Joe"—rather than a realist imperative or equalitarian spirit. Therefore, though popular, they eluded respect from many critics and filmmakers.
Filho and Dornelles’ use genre not to self-exorcise or target religion in particular, but to play out Brazil’s bloody history and divisions within an allegorical space. This may seem obvious in regard to the foreigners who are all stock macho types plundered from Vietnam War movies and their allegorical kin; films such as Southern Comfort (1981) and Aliens (1986). It is less straightforward with the people of Bacurau. They get a more detailed and realistic treatment, with the majority played by non-actors with naturalistic performances to match. Yet with the foreigners as your quintessential colonising force, detailing their race-based view and justifying the killing of a child by using the right rhetoric, the village is, in turn, an idealised construction of a northern community in its self-declared utopian make-up and absence of Catholicism. Fundamental to Brazilian society across all classes, from the past to the present, here it is mentioned once as something once prevalent but now frivolous.
The issue with allegory is that when people, conflicts, and creeds are rendered totemic they can lose their vitality. A resemblance to reality (as opposed to realism) is lost when detail and loose ends are removed. What makes Bacurau work as a simplified yet effective performance of colonialism is the sheer strength and specificity of its pop and national culture symbols. Instead of being half-heartedly implemented for cultural cache, its appropriation of genre filmmaking is full-throated and as bloody as the history that hangs over the film like a hawk.
Directors: Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles
Country: Brazil & France
Duration: 131 minutes
Classification: 18 for "strong bloody violence, gore"
Release: Streaming in the UK on MUBI now
Ruairí McCann is a critic based in Belfast. He has appeared in Little White Lies, Photogenié, Ultra Dogme, and The Thin Air.