May 16, 2019
‘Bacaurau’ Review: A Bleak, Brutal Near-Future Western [Cannes]
There’s an area of Brazil dubbed the sertão, the “backlands” of the North East far removed from the urban congestion of the megalopolises like Rio. The dry, deserted, desert land feels like it’s off the map, the kind of vista appropriate for a Leone or Ford film as anything. It’s all the more fitting that award-winning filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho, along with co-director Juliano Dornelles, sets up his latest film Bacurau, as a kind of neo-Western, near-future speculative fiction in these lands, finding in its isolation opportunity to show the power of community and the brutality of humans.
From the opening shot, where we enter from space and zoom down to this indiscriminate spot on the globe far away from the bustling lights to the South-East, we see a community in mourning. The matriarch has passed away at 96, and the town of Bacurau has gathered. A local woman with sharp features arrives to disrupt, screaming obscenities and feeling under-appreciated. We soon learn that she is the local doctor Domingas (played by the formidable Sônia Braga, the heart of Filho’s extraordinary 2016 film Aquarius). The rest of the group eke out a living despite being strangled by water restrictions and political interference, finding their survival requiring the sneaking of freshwater in via a rusty water truck.
The film’s pace is deliberately slow, taking on the rhythm of a land far from the bustle of urban life. There’s technology at play – cell phones, tablets, cars, etc., but the feeling is very much one of an isolated town somewhere a century or more back, divorced from the center of power and purposely isolated. When the townsfolk recognize that they’ve literally been wiped off satellite maps they soon begin to uncover something far more sinister at play.
Part of the machinations of what’s transpiring is being surreptitiously led by Michael (Udo Kier), a suitably sadistic character that exemplifies the horror at the heart of the story. There’s a cold, calculated process at play that the residents of Bacurau are unwitting victims of, yet soon they must all rally to confront this rising evil.
Running at 132 minutes, the film goes nowhere in a hurry, including how it spells out the surprises from its plot. It’s an easy enough claim for most movies to be spoiler adverse, but a great deal of the success of Bacurau stems from the way the surprises are slowly revealed, the conspiracies allowed to build brick-by-narrative-brick. There’s a Twilight Zone-like surrealism to the way some characters interact, but by the end it feels less like a pastoral Leone film and more like a Peckinpah bloodbath, complete with all the moral ambiguity and grisly outcome that director’s films are celebrated for.
By spending so much time with the community there’s plenty of opportunity to really get a sense of the various characters – the farmer living outside of town who has the magic pills, the drag queen helping warn of passing strangers, the prostitutes, the DJ and other denizens that make up the ecosystem of this small village. The arrival of the flashy politician demonstrates both the cynicism of the community and also their cohesion, and early indication of how as a group, despite their many differences, they come together against a common enemy at a moment’s notice.
By building up with such quiet confidence the explosions of the last act are all the more impactful. The film doesn’t shy away from its blood-soaked finale, and for some that are lulled into the more pastoral visions of the early scenes were perhaps overlooking the spilled coffins that littered the roadside on one of the opening shots.
There’s a nihilistic, apocalyptic thread that broadly looks to aspects like American Imperialism and the political corruption of modern Brazil, but of course these kind of post-Colonial concerns are near universal. The safari-like horror of the last act is brazen but not nearly as over-the-top as it might first appear, exactly the kind of banal acceptance of privileged violence that transpires with endangered wildlife throughout the world for those rich enough to partake.
The film is equal parts an excoriation of the abandonment of community in favour of corruption, but also a kind of fable that idealizes the notions of simplicity over the trappings and concerns of the urban elite. The collision of all these factors becomes explicit in near diabolical fashion, where the tools of the past are used to defend against those that would simply like an excuse to exercise vengeance out of boredom.
It’s difficult to say whether general audiences will have the patience to stick with the film for as long as required, and it’s especially easy to simply go in having the ending spelled out and ticking the time down until the culmination. That of course would miss out on the magic that Bacurau can provide, indicative of the very mindset the film is excoriating throughout. With subtle echoes to likes of Mad Max, there’s a greater story here that while not always perfectly executed is still richly realized, making for a harrowing and effective piece. The collision between past and near-future is well played, making for a hybrid where the very mechanisms of civilization are being tested.
Bacurau, like the animal that gives the town its name, is a strange bird. In some ways it should feel indulgent and overlong, yet by attenuating its pace and allowing us to fully immerse in its world the result is a work all the more powerful and affecting. Its bleak worldview is buttressed by the feeling that there are ways to combat such horror, and while the narrative bounces between the subtle and the overtly arch, it manages to supremely execute its bold, harrowing vision remarkably well.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10
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