NYFF 57: It Takes a Village to Raise Hell in “Bacurau”

Bacurau Sonia Braga (center) In Bacurau (New York Film Festival)

Brazil’s bloody modern Western is occasionally baffling, but never boring.

One of the enduring tropes of Western movies is hardworking, salt of the Earth townspeople coming together to fight evildoers. Even Blazing Saddles, where the people of Rock Ridge built an entire scale model replica of their town to throw off the villainous Hedley Lamarr and his henchmen, plays into it, albeit for laughs. No less funny, albeit in a dark and gruesome way, is Brazil’s Bacurau, a cautionary tale about why you should never assume you have the upper hand in a situation, no matter how much money you have or the color of your skin.

Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, the film opens as Teresa (Bárbara Colen) returns to her hometown of Bacurau, a tiny village in the remote Brazilian outback. Teresa comes bearing vaccines and other medications to stock the village infirmary, but she’s also there for the funeral of her grandmother, whose passing drives town doctor Domingas (Sonia Braga) into a grief-stricken rage. Settling back into quiet, working class village life almost immediately, Teresa also rekindles a casually romantic relationship with Acacio (Thomas Aquino), who’s trying desperately to put his criminal past behind him.

Here’s the funny thing: everything mentioned in that last paragraph? It has almost nothing to do with the plot of the movie. It exists mostly as not a red herring, exactly, but more like a misdirection, something to lull the viewer into a false sense of security. It looks like one of those feel-good movies white people enjoy watching about poor-but-noble brown people surviving against the odds. We couldn’t imagine ourselves managing in such circumstances, but god bless them for their courage.

And then a team of horses gallops through the village, an ominous sign of what’s coming.

Shortly before the horses come, the townspeople discover that they’ve lost cell phone service, but, rather more unsettling than that, they’re also no longer locatable on satellite. They’ve literally gone off the grid, but not by choice. It’s all part of an elaborate plot of terrorism by a group of Americans, led by Udo Kier (bringing his usual brand of unblinking, singularly European creepiness to the role), whose motives remain largely unclear until perhaps the last half hour of the movie. With their barracks-style sleeping quarters and drone technology, one assumes that they’re mercenaries, perhaps having something to do with Lunga (Silvero Pereira), an outlaw who lives outside Bacarau in self-imposed exile.

Most of this feels deliberate, as if Filho and Dornelles are taking the viewer on a winding, leisurely path before the bodies start piling up.

As it turns out, they’re tourists, playing their own version of The Most Dangerous Game. A few members of the team feign some sense of morality by refusing to kill children or animals, while others are driven into a near-erotic frenzy at the very idea of it. In either case, they’re all quite assured that decimating an entire village of who they perceive to be ignorant scrubland trash will be easy. What are they going to do, throw fruit at them?

You can probably guess how that goes.

It takes a little while to figure out where Bacurau is going. There are multiple protagonists, but very little time is spent developing them as characters. An opening title card describes the setting as “a few years from now,” but there’s nothing overtly “futuristic” about it, save for the drone that looks like a UFO. There are hints that something supernatural might be afoot, perhaps that the death of Teresa’s grandmother has unleashed some sort of bad energy, but the violence that befalls various characters comes by way of either guns or machetes. Most of this feels deliberate, as if Filho and Dornelles are taking the viewer on a winding, leisurely path before the bodies start piling up.

Few recent “the poor rise up against the wealthy” movies have ultimately been as satisfying (or as viciously funny ) as Bacurau. There are no gray areas or “both sides” here — while the villagers aren’t saints (they like their whoring and their psychedelic drugs), the tourists are outrageously, comically evil, the kind of evil that celebrates ambushing and murdering a couple in their car by fucking in the nearby brush. That kind of over the top evil deserves over the top retribution, and it comes by way of antique guns, underground tunnels, and machetes. 

One might want an explanation for who this murderous “tourist” group really is, where they come from, if there’s more of them, etc., but, in the end, it doesn’t matter. Evil doesn’t need an explanation, and it doesn’t need to be understood, especially the kind of evil that exists to do others such grievous harm. The only recourse is elimination, and for their would-be victims to continue living in peace, while keeping a wary eye on the hot and endless horizon.

Bacurau Trailer:

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