Cannes Film Festival: Bacurau (2019)

Bacurau by Kleber Mendonça Filho is an exhilarating mixture of genres – political satire, western, science fiction – underpinned by savage political and social comment. It’s a blast.

Community Spirit

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Bacurau is a remote village with a happily diverse community in the vast Serra Verde of northeast Brazil. But it seems to have disappeared off the map and it’s losing phone and internet access. Even more crucial immediately, it is deprived of water, which now has to be brought in by the tanker-load, caused by the building of a local dam, thanks to a corrupt local mayor Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima). The film opens with a lorry crash on the road in which has ominously spilled its load of coffins.

When the village is brought together by the funeral of their community leader Carmelita (Lia de Itamaracá), they start to suffer the unexplained shooting of residents in outlying farms which they’re alerted to by stampeding horses down the main street. Then these random killings start to happen closer and closer to their houses: these and other strange happenings cause consternation because they’re beyond normal comprehension.

There’s a shocking explanation. Like European wild-animal trophy hunters going on safari in Africa, there’s a group of Americans who have paid to do the same in Brazil – because, after all, brown lives don’t matter any more than if they were game. And they have the latest technology to help them track down their human prey. But unexpectedly, the villagers are not just passive victims.

Everyone in Bacurau does a wonderful turn, it’s an ensemble piece, but the legendary Sonia Braga is particularly memorable as Dr Dominga, foul-mouthed and aggressive when drunk, professional and fearless when sober, and unrecognisably, disreputably, visibly aged instead looking of her normally glamorous self. Cult actor Udo Kier is an unprincipled gringo tour leader. Notable others are flamboyant Lunga (Silvero Pereira), a resistance fighter against the hated dam; Pacote (Thomas Aquino), a reformed criminal with a compilation of his greatest CCTV hits on YouTube; Plinio, the reasonable school master in charge of the local school that is named in discreet homage to director John Carpenter; and Daimiano (Carlos Francisco), nurturing his plants in the nude.

Bacurau is a savage political satire of the American exploitation of Brazil, Brazilian corruption at local and national levels and the racist attitudes that feed that exploitation and corruption. The violent, bloody community spirit under the influence of powerful psychotropic drugs with which the residents of Bacurau fight back – a spaghetti western nod to Sergio Leone – is exhilarating and worryingly inspirational. It should be said that it is also criminally reprehensible – though as there is no law presence in a province which is left to its own devices, it seems unlikely that this matters. In Bacurau director Kleber Mendonça Filho builds on his attack on political corruption in Rio de Janeiro in his previous film Aquarius, which also starred a fragrant Sonia Braga.

Bacurau premiered in Competition at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize.

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