Film (2019). Ancine, Arte France Cinéma, CNC Aide au cinémas du monde – Institut Français, CinaScópio Produções, Globo Films, Globosat/Telecine, SBS Films, Símio Films. Directed by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho. Written by Dornelles and Mendonça Filho. Cast includes Thomas Aquino, Danny Barbosa, Sônia Braga, Bárbara Colen, Udo Kier, Silvero Pereira, Wilson Rabelo, Luciana Souza and Karine Teles. 132 minutes. Colour.
In Near Future Brazil, a highly charged political fable is unfolded. After initial incomprehension, the inhabitants of the small town of Bacurau, who clearly represent the folk of the great country, violently resist the coercive physical and media quarantine which has been covertly engineered by its demented rulers, who are not named, and monitored from a mile or so away by a band of extreme-adventure "gringo" tourists loaded down with modish heritage weapons from previous American "conflicts", who plan to massacre the besieged inhabitants of the village for sport (see Games and Sports). This game of mini-genocide [for Wild Hunt see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] dominates the film, by the end of which, this time round, Bacurau defeats the enemy. But there is more future to come, a hard rain tomorrow.
As discourse, Bacurau has all the clarity of good agitprop. The story as told, overflowing with twists and turns and gapes of discontinuity and genre clashes, is something different. It begins moderato. The opening titles are seen against a sparkling darkness, like a backdrop-curtain punctuated by star-holes. As the credits fade, the backdrop is transfigured into the real universe lit by real stars. The curve of planet Earth edges into view, along with a small bright artifact quickly identifiable as a Communications satellite which we may assume never ceases to monitor the story about to be told: Bacurau (we are learning) is a fictional story told in meta-story spasms set in the middle of a real planet under surveillance. The satellite drifts off-screen (but is never forgotten) as our line of sight pans downwards from space, and we find ourselves descending slowly – from omniscient camera to anthropomorphic – into post-exploitation countryside, where a water tanker can be seen hurtling awkwardly along an ill-maintained highway. The film stock is low quality, and the camera shaky, as in a documentary film (these faux effects are soon backgrounded, though the camera remains a visitor to scenes sometimes seemingly caught almost by accident). The camera overtakes the tanker; onscreen text locates the tale as taking place in the Sertão (or outback) of Western Pernumbuco, a large state in north-east Brazil, and the period as "A Few Years From Now".
We are in the truck cab. Teresa (Colen) has arranged a lift back to her home town Bacurau to attend the funeral of her grandmother. An image of the Bacurau-connected bandit Lunga (Pereira) shows on the cab monitor. Teresa knows there is another wanted man in town, the assassin who goes as Pacote or Acácio (Aquino); she will soon sleep with him. The tanker slows down after flattening three vacant coffins in the middle of the road, possibly an homage to the Icon-obsessed work of Luis Bunuel (1900-1983), whose deadpan surrealism also irradiates the seemingly offhand glimpse of the upended van of the coffin-maker; his several appearances throughout Bacurau as he plies his trade will also clearly invoke A Fistful of Dollars (1964) directed by Sergio Leone (1929-1989). A dead motorcyclist is glimpsed at the side of the screen. A few minutes later Teresa is shown the dam whose demolition has blocked off Bacurau's water supply. The tanker is carrying emergency water. She arrives in town, is welcomed by Plinio (Rabelo), one of the several town elders, who gives her a pill, which she takes. Her suitcase is carefully carried indoors and opened, revealing a supply of Brasol IV, a "highly psychotropic" Drug, "a mood inhibitor disguised as a painkiller" which most of the population of Brazil are now taking, seemingly to allay the stress of life under the current government. Her grandmother is laid out in the next room. A communal funeral, with spontaneous singing, follows. A man with a microphone broadcasts an intimate commentary through speakers. His role, which continues through the film as he tracks events in real time, is similar to that of a Greek chorus, and complements songs created ad hoc by the town singer. The funeral ceremony climaxes. The pace begins to quicken, loaded sequence after loaded sequence are set before the viewer pellmell, each jagged fragment comprising a building block, without any cross-cutting, the whole edifice creating an explosion of meaning: a plethora of in-your-face-paraphrasable synecdoches impossible to synopsize because nothing in a film like Bacurau is extraneous, no matter how casual the visiting camera may seem: synopsis and diegesis are intended to become one argument.
The sly self-conscious nudzhing spin of all this is marked throughout by the film's directors' (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles) conspicuous foregrounding of a wide range of narrative rhetorics and shooting conventions native to world cinema, with roughnesses and lurches in framing and POV and follow-through all presented as deliberate and explicit exposures of the joy and artifice of telling a tale meant to be understood aloud. Over and above Bunuel and Leone, and numerous shout-outs to recent Latin American cinema, perhaps the most significant homage to earlier work may register with viewers through Bacurau's numerous fades and slow wipes and highly visible (or almost invisible) cuts, all trademarks of the work of Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998), whose Seven Samurai (1954) is the paradigm story of the defense of a cut-off village besieged by barbarians. As Bacurau reaches its emotive climax, its more cartoon-like spaghetti-Western moments of just comeuppance, themselves deeply beholden to Kurasawa, may also best be understood as agitprop, as being presented to be seen. At the same time, Bacurau is so overloaded with content (as noted above) that, perhaps contrary to its makers' agitprop principles, the film in its telling becomes cataractal: more truth pouring down at once than synopsis (regardless of didactic urgencies) can condense into paraphrase.
But some movements of discourse into story, not necessarily presented in the order told, may be instanced without excessive loss. As the siege of Bacurau tightens – with the tanker sabotaged, the town itself cut off from any Communication with the internet, its very name and location deleted from the digital maps of the world, electricity snapped off in the middle of the night – we soon gain a sense of how the villagers will avoid victimization, that if there is going to be Horror in SF here it will not obey the usual Clichés of political paranoia. The Bacurauans may have initially seemed ignorant, malleable, deer frozen in the headlights of America, a psychic tetanus that M John Harrison, commenting on the nonfantastic Hollow in the Land (2020) by James Clarke, calls "static flight reflex" (2 May 2020 Guardian Review, p13); but something is happening here, some integrity is being maintained. It is surely something more than their use of Brasol IV to insulate them from high anxiety. The profundity of their resistance is not, in fact, fully explained in Bacurau, beyond an unspoken assumption that folk who live according to Utopian principles are armed for struggle; a sentimentalized agitprop version of the course of twenty-first century history may, in other words, have vulnerably exposed itself here. Be that as it may, the Bacurauans of this tale, though they inhabit a microcosm of the torture chamber of the world, they are, all the same, agents in the drama of the fire to come.
Given the political oppression any Brazilian must (it seems) normalize, their lives have in fact been good, and it seems limiting to describe the village as being defined by its past as a quilombo or settlement of escaped slaves, or its present as a compromised enclave blind to the terror of things beyond. Bacurau as glimpsed here comprises a kind of extended family with a nucleus of leaders but no priests; the ethnic mix is an aliquot sample of the human family; there are no signs of current Christian patriarchy or prurience, the relic church now being used for storage; Bacurauans are unaffectedly casual about Sex (free or paid for) and nudity (male and female); food is shared, and worldly goods; through the Greek chorus mic the communality of the polis is constantly anointed. Bacurauns are (the film insists) subtle, supple, adult. They are citizens of the world which surrounds them: when an elderly villager is buzzed by a flying saucer (see UFOs), he warns his compatriots that a drone has been tracking him. So they are able to watch the skies. In retrospect, a fatal error has been made by the soi-disant Mysterious Strangers investing the village, for their imperial gaze on untermenschen as prey has precluded any awareness that the prey may recognize them in advance, may recognize a flying saucer as a toy from a 1950s movie; may prove more savvy than they are. It is perhaps impossible, we read extradiegetically but surely, for Americans to grasp the fact that the other inhabitants of the world are wise to them.
But the pressure mounts. In the middle of the night, a stream of unharnessed horses from an outlying ranch weaves through the town, evoking cattle-drives from American Westerns; two Bacurauns visit the ranch, finding only corpses. They are themselves killed by two helmeted motorcyclists who had previously identified themselves as Brazilians blocked off from their native south by unprecedented storms see Climate Change. The pair – uncannily similar in their helmets to "Simon and Garfunkel" in Detectorists (2014-2017) written and directed by Mackenzie Crook – turn out to be hirelings, and when they return to the gringo compound to report to the German exile Michael (Kier), the caricature faux-Fûhrer in command of the killing game, he first berates them, as native staff are not allowed to play the game, and then shoots them. This arouses the tourists' bloodlust. A little later, two panicked elderly Bacurauans attempt to escape in their car and are shot from a distance by heritage weapons; the shooters then have ecstatic sex to celebrate their kill. This is all filmed by the saucer-shaped drone as part of the entertainment package.
Inevitably, the tide turns. Two adventure tourists stalk an elderly farmer and his wife, who shoot them first, killing one and wounding the female stalker, who asks for help, communicating through what seems to be a primitive smartphone-linked Universal Translator. They take her to the local doctor Domingas (Braga), but she has already bled out. The gender-fluid bandit Lunga has been persuaded to return from the sabotaged reservoir, a gesture of solidarity which reinforces the villagers' already ample resolve. The remaining gringos, panicking at the ruin of their holiday, are all killed. Later, when Bacurau's inconceivably corrupt absentee mayor – whose stupidity and arrogance are close to dementia – arrives in the village to pick up the Americans, on the assumption that they have finished their sport in the killing field, he is arraigned by the community, tied backwards naked on a mule, and whipped westward into the caatinga (a term for the xeromorphic scrap desert native to much of post-agribusiness Brazil), where he will die terribly. His punishment by communal command is pure chthonic agitprop, transgressively spaghetti, arousing. The defiant deadpan flamboyance of the final sequences of Bacurau lifts the spirits, while at the same time asking viewers to exult in a film triumph that must – beyond the final credits –ignite reprisals.
His charges all dead, Michael now arms himself and makes a long walk into Bacurau. He confronts Domingas, who faces him down. He kills two men (it is understood that Udo Kier's masterful assumption of this savage role taxed him deeply). He is captured. He remains defiant. He mocks the sentimental dream that an increasingly immanent surveillance world and its gear can be weaponized to aid otherwise disenfranchised organic communities. That they can connect to the world. What they do not know with all their communal savvy (he tells them in so many words) is that what the world connects to, it eats. Michael is then forced into an underground chamber that had held corpses. "We have killed more people than you know," he shouts. As the door to his tomb shuts, he speaks the last words of the film: "This is only the beginning." Cue Dystopia. Cue hard rain. [JC]