Close Reading: Bacurau
The Critics Academy, a program of Film at Lincoln Center and a venture of Film Comment, is a workshop for aspiring film writers, providing a valuable platform to launch their careers. Throughout the 57th New York Film Festival, Film Comment will be publishing work from young critics taking part in the program.
Images from Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, 2019)
A man stands in the shanty doorway, clapping to the beat of a sex worker moaning in ecstasy. The woman is riding a man in a glowing pink room, exposed to the night by an open window and an open door. Outside, in the dusty Bacurau, a one-street town located in the Brazilian outback, a group of locals sing in unison above the erotic handclap. The town’s residents have formed a circle around a man and a woman performing capoeira, swinging their legs in fluid motions, slapping dirt and shuffling feet to the rhythm of the communal beat. The diegetic sound fades and an ’80s electronic bassline takes over the score (a moody, robotic John Carpenter composition from his album Lost Themes). The effect is uncanny, transforming the atmosphere from the visceral and terrestrial into something eerie and otherworldly.
This is how Brazilian co-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles use creative sound design to create anxiety and tension in their movie Bacurau, screening in the main slate of the New York Film Festival. The film follows the residents of a fictional rural town set in the Sertão of northeast Brazil as they face existential threats to their community. The plot is mostly guided through Teresa, a young woman who returns home to attend the funeral of her black grandmother, Carmelita, who was Bacurau’s town matriarch. Teresa’s dad Plinio is an important community leader and her lover Pacote is friends with Lunga, a fugitive trans woman who leads an armed gang that looks after the town. Early on, a rousing speech by Plinio following Carmelita’s funeral procession lulled me into thinking the movie would unfurl as a character-driven project, but the meditative pacing shifts about two-thirds of the way through, and it becomes something else entirely. Their personal threads and connections are dropped when a group of bloodthirsty hunters—classic movie villain types—arrive in Bacurau to kill off the locals one-by-one, gamer-style, reminiscent of the 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game.”
Bacurau could be said to be latest entry in the resurgence of the social horror genre, spurred by Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), which employs horror tropes to confront a major social problem—in this case, a violent clash with otherness. It’s set in an ambiguous time period (“a few years from now,” according to an early caption) that takes on a contemporary edge when the hunting troop—made up of a German, an Italian, and some Americans unified only by their whiteness—refers to Bacurau as a “shithole town” (a likely reference to Trump’s recent disparaging comments about immigrants). In Filho and Dornelles’ dystopian near future, the ease of rural life in a dusty, remote and virtually untouched land can be instantly disrupted and even wiped from the map by more powerful outsiders. Death is always on the horizon for Bacurauans—actual death (“Second dead person I saw today,” Teresa says at her grandmother’s funeral), but also cultural death. When their right to exist is threatened, violence is depicted as a necessary tool of resistance for the community.
Like in other Filho films, Bacurau compresses time and space to explore the realities of Brazil’s class divide, especially how technological modernity has calcified power for the wealthy and threatened to displace the poor. Filho’s first feature, Neighboring Sounds (2012), opens with a sequence of black and white still photographs of the city of Recife before cutting to the present. Overhead shots of Recife’s Boa Viagem beach open Aquarius (2016), showing snapshots of the long avenue, dotted with retro cars, that connects the neighborhood’s slums to an expanse of invasive high rises threatening to displace them. For Bacurau, he and Dornelles imbed historic snapshots into the story, lingering on the childhood photos of matriarch Carmelita at her wake, as well as pictures and symbols of past rebellions in the village’s history museum. Recalling early Brazilian cinema, the movie centers on geography (the movie opens with an establishing shot of South America from outer space) and the specifics of location, from the title locale to the long durational shots of the village’s barren, earthy landscape with pockets of lush green. Filho layers the relationships between his characters and their environments, which are usually in prosperous parts of Recife, with the dark legacy of exploitation that still lingers. It is in this darkness that Filho is at his most flamboyant as a filmmaker, signaling an encroaching (and potentially menacing) modernity by animating the mundanities of human life with a frenetic aural landscape—industrial sounds, eerie synths, pulsing drums, and classical scores that transform cities, neighborhoods, and even single blocks into powder kegs that could spark at any moment.
Bacurau zooms out from Filho’s preoccupation with social milieu, showcasing his theories about power on a grander scale. Staged like a spaghetti western—with cacti, horses, guns, and racist villains—the film is packed with ideas about the ambivalence of government, the preservation of indeginous land and history, and resistance to fascism and its invading forces. The residents of Bacurau are forced into dependency due to their neglectful mayor, Tony Junior, working together to ration a scarce amount of food and supplies. It’s only after a hostile visit from the mayor that villagers start getting killed off, suggesting a link between the local government and the mysterious international mercenaries. Filho and Dornelles first conceived of the movie in 2009, but plot points like this feel eerily similar to more recent events. In May, the governor of Rio de Janeiro announced he had covertly deployed police snipers across the city to kill criminal suspects. Meanwhile, far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has plans to give more cover to state police to execute people, saying in August that if his new legislation is passed, criminals will “die in the streets like cockroaches.” In this way, Filho and Dornelles deftly harness the power of cinema to reflect political realities and horrors of the present.
Bacurau comes to a thrilling climax: the ratcheting tension is shattered, and the film becomes an all-out gore-fest, tipping the film into horror territory. It’s a classic invasion story that delights in rich historical references to Brazilian society, but its central message is rooted in the political upheaval of the present. Though Bacurau is a fictitious place, Filho said in an interview with a Brazilian website that its personality is based off of several real places in Brazil. “This kind of helping community, which learns to live relatively well even on the margins of public power, exists not only in the backcountry, but also in poorer urban settings. And violence is there as a form of reaction.” He argues that resistance is endemic to those pushed to the margins. “We also look at historical references, such as the Warsaw Ghetto, where Nazis confined Jews and set up a genocide system against which, at one point, there was an attempt at insurrection. We look at the Vietnam War,” Filho said. “These are borderline situations in which it is not absurd to think that a group of people will react violently to a devastating act of violence.”
A. G. Sims is a writer based in Brooklyn.