In some respects, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s “Bacurau” can be seen as a logical continuation of the Brazilian critic-turned-auteur’s two previous features. Much like 2012’s revelatory “Neighboring Sounds,” for example, “Bacurau” is a patient and sprawling portrait of a Brazilian community as it struggles to defend itself against the dark specter of modernity. And much like 2016’s unshakeable “Aquarius,” “Bacurau” hinges on an immovably stubborn woman who refuses to relinquish her place in the world — who won’t allow our blind lust for the future to bury her meaningful ties to the past.
In some respects, however, “Bacurau” marks something of a departure for its director (who shares his credit here with Juliano Dornelles). Whereas “Neighboring Sounds” relies on acoustics to weaponize the 21st century against its characters, this film opts for actual weapons. And while “Aquarius” is a grounded character study about a retired journalist who refuses to sell her Recife apartment to a predatory development company, “Bacurau” is a gloriously demented (and lightly psychedelic) Western that starts in outer space, ends with Udo Kier being hunted by a ghost, and spends the rest of its runtime blending everything from “Seven Samurai” to “Hostel” into a bloody and unapologetic “fuck you” to anyone who thinks that cutting edge technology entitles them to see the world as their own personal slaughterhouse. So… yeah, maybe it’s also a slight change of pace.
Although, that isn’t so apparent at first. When “Bacurau” comes down to Earth, opening in the stars before zooming in on an unlit stretch of land in the isolated flats of northeastern Brazil, the camera focuses its attention on a man and a woman driving along a highway in a water truck. She is Teresa (Barbara Colen), a native of the remote and fictional village that lends the film its title. He is one of the many semi-relevant supporting characters who lend that village a robust sense of life. And the splintered coffins they find strewn about the road should be our first clue that “Bacurau” is steering towards Western territory; in hindsight, it could only be more obvious if a dog ran across the screen with a severed hand in its mouth. But in the moment, given the less fantastical nature of Filho’s previous work, it seems more like a typical arthouse flourish (or maybe the first of several broad swipes at Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro) than a toe-dip into the waters of genre storytelling.
That feeling remains in place for much of the first 30 minutes or so, as Teresa arrives in the tiny but vibrant Bacurau in time to help bury the 94-year-old village elder. Sure, it’s strange that an old man pops a psychotropic substance of some kind into Teresa’s mouth as she walks down the street, but the moment passes so fast that it almost feels subliminal. And the funeral that follows appears normal enough, as it teems with the kind of small town eccentrics that you’d expect to find in the impoverished Brazilian equivalent of Stars Hollow.
“Aquarius” star Sonia Braga is sensational as ever as Domingas, the alcoholic local doctor who loudly calls the deceased a whore. She’s joined by a coterie of oddball personalities who include — but are not limited to — a toothy troubadour, a sweet prostitute, her red-haired pimp, a reformed gangster who can’t figure out what his civilian name should be, and a jolly DJ of sorts who projects YouTube videos on a mobile screen in the center of town and blasts live news alerts through his speaker system for all of Bacurau to hear; the town isn’t big enough to require a radio station.
There are a few subdued hints about the state of things (e.g. the supply routes are closed due to regional violence, the food is rotting, and the lecherous mayor who’s running for re-election is trying to bribe the locals with boxes of free prescription drugs), but the gentle resiliency of this place and its people seem capable of providing enough drama to sustain the rest of the film. The museum in the center of town may not attract many tourists, but it stands as a proud monument to a town with a long memory. And when Teresa’s school teacher father wakes up the next day to find that Bacurau has been wiped off the maps he finds online, it seems less like a glimpse into The Twilight Zone than it does a wry comment on the digital world’s tendency to write over its indigenous people. That’s when a UFO flies into the picture, with Udo Kier not far behind.
It would ruin the fun to reveal how things develop from there, but suffice it to say that the film’s time period — it’s set “a few years from now” — grows harder to ignore as the story opens up and Dornelles and Filho start to bulldoze through the bumper lanes of staid arthouse cinema. Jarring by design, that transition into genre territory can be an awkward one. That’s partially because the sudden uptick in violence that comes with it is shepherded by the arrival of a half-dozen American actors (the most recognizable of whom might be “Support the Girls” bit player Jonny Mars), whose homicidal squabbles smack of an obviousness that’s seldom felt in Filho’s work, and distract from the wealth of wonderful personalities that are waiting for us back in Bacurau.
But the film is able to survive its embarrassment of riches, as Filho quickly adapts to the epic scale of this canvas when it becomes clear that Bacurau is in imminent danger, and that its citizens will have to band together against an invading force in order to reassert their spot on the map and preserve the memories associated with it. Screen wipes, slow fades, and other expressive inflections help ease “Bacurau” out of its starting register, playfully moving the story forward with a wink to the past. The most indelible of Dornelles and Filho’s delirious compositions — hooves stampeding through tungsten light, a museum wall stripped of its exhibits, a dehumanized prostitute in flashy spandex pants cradling her arm like a child as she walks down the town’s dirt road after an unwanted encounter — sustain an arresting friction between the world that Teresa’s people are fighting for, and the world that they’re eventually forced to fight against.
At once both more forceful and more inscrutable than Filho’s previous work, “Bacurau” plunges deeper into midnight territory as its core ideas take hold, its ghosts become literal, and its heroes take up arms. From the very beginning, the village of Bacurau has found a way to straddle the past and the future; they are as modern as they need to be, and no more. Over time, this unmoored and deeply unexpected mash-up assumes the sharp-toothed defiance of Cinema Novo classics like “How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman?,” and clarifies why Filho’s movies often feel like veiled threats to those who believe the new world can only be paved over the ruins of the old one. That threat has never been this much fun before, nor have the consequences of ignoring it ever been this gruesome.
“Bacurau” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.