A strange journey but one presented to us by a great man of the cinema.


Sônia Braga and Luciana Souza


What a masterly director Kleber Mendonça Filho is proving to be. Unlike some critics I was not entirely taken by his first feature Neighbouring Sounds (2012) but its successor 2016’s Aquarius was an unquestionable masterpiece. What this Brazilian writer/director might do next became an intriguing question. Now that Bacurau has reached us we have the answer, although in more ways than one it is a surprise, even if it does provide a fresh role for Sônia Braga who was just brilliant playing the lead in Aquarius. Juliano Dornelles was the production designer on those first two features but here he emerges unexpectedly with credits as co-director and co-writer. However, the major unpredictable factor is the change of tone: if Filho’s first two features were exclusively arthouse works, Bacurau for all its underlying ambitions might well be relished by audiences who favour violent action movies. Some have found here echoes of the tough spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and the name on the school building in the town of Bacurau is a positive invitation to link this piece with the work of John Carpenter.


In point of fact Bacurau is set in Western Pernambuco and presented as a work taking place a few years from now. Nevertheless, the opening scenes contain nothing of a sci-fi nature and the reference to the future seems more like a hint that the threat portrayed in the film to the inhabitants of Bacurau is one that could yet come about and to anyone anywhere in spite of the vivid realisation of the film's particular setting. We are introduced to this place when Teresa (Bárbara Cohen, an actress with a very engaging presence) arrives there to attend the funeral of her 94-year-old grandmother. She is reunited with her father, a teacher (Wilson Rabelo), and is quickly attracted to a local man named Picote (Thomas Aquino) who is something of a reformed gangster. Among the many other residents seen is a doctor with a strong personality, Domingas (that’s Garcia’s role).


These opening scenes are an absolute pleasure and, if the adept casting and the atmospheric quality appeal, even more attractive to any true cinephile is the flow of the piece and the judgment behind every shot. Filho has us in the palm of his hand. Where he is taking us, however, becomes something of a question. We soon find that Bacurau has had its water supply cut off and is under pressure from a sleazy politician (Thardelly Lima) out to coerce those living there into voting for him in a fresh mayoral election. If there is menace in that, a more abstract threat is also implied: it suddenly emerges that Bacurau has been expunged from maps of the area and cellphones and the like can no longer get a signal to operate there. The sense of unease generated by these seemingly inexplicable events fits well enough with the early sequence showing Teresa’s return during which she passes on the road a vehicle no longer operational, a corpse and a whole array of coffins.


For some the build-up of a wider menace never quite made explicit may seem like a weakness, but I regard it as the film’s strength since it enables us to accept Bacurau as a generalised fable about political power, the suppression of peoples and the cheapness of life for the poor. Any ambiguity at this stage seems more of a help than a hindrance. One specific example of this, minor but effective, occurs when two strangely dressed bikers ride into town in a way that is not entirely without an echo of Jean Cocteau’s menacing riders in Orphée: tension here derives from our uncertainty as to whether they are figures to evoke fear or for whom we should be fearful.


Unlike Aquarius, however, Bacurau is not a masterpiece. I had heard beforehand that events would lead to a bloodbath (the film has an 18 certificate) and as the film continues some characters (Teresa for example) fade into the background and are left undeveloped as more and more prominence is given to a group of hunters led by a German named Michael (Udo Kier doing what Kier does) whose target will be the citizens of Bacurau. Even though the film runs for well over two hours, Filho’s skills hold us with ease, but the second half of the movie still seems a mite overextended and, more importantly, the violence that plays out between the invaders and the town’s defenders (the latter now headed by an outlaw played by Silvero Pereira) come to feel less like a meaningful comment presented in genre garb than a reduction to standard action fare. If there is any ambiguity remaining it lies only in the ill-defined links that unite the politician and the party commanded by Michael: the wider ranging sense of only half-understood threat that had marked the film earlier has been lost, but it was that that had given a sense of underlying purpose and meaning to this bizarrely unorthodox but intriguing narrative. Judge it as a parable or fable and the recent Parasite definitely comes closer to bringing that off. But, whatever reservations you may make, Bacurau is yet further evidence that Filho is a born filmmaker, somebody with a quite remarkable flair for bringing cinema alive.




Cast: Bárbara Colen, Sônia Braga, Udo Kier, Thomás Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Thardelly Lima, Rubens Santos, Wilson Rabelo, Carlos Francisco, Luciana Souza, Karine Teles, Antonio Sabola, Buda Lina.


Dir Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Pro Emilie Lesclaux, Saïd Ben Saïd and Michel Merkt, Screenplay Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Ph Pedro Sotero, Art Dir Thales Junqueira, Ed Eduardo Serrano, Music Mateus Alves and Tomaz Alves Souza, Costumes Rita Azevedo.


BR Petrobras/Arte France Cinéma/SBS Films/Globo Filmes/CinemaScópio/SBS Productions/Símio Filmes-MUBI.
131 mins. Brazil/France. 2019. Rel: 13 March 2020. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 18.