Bacurau is a tough and timeless Brazilian frontier western

Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s potent genre transplant depicts an isolated idyll besieged by yankees with bloodlust to slake.

Updated: 11 December 2020

By Nick Pinkerton

Bárbara Colen as Teresa in Bacurau
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Bacurau is available on Blu-ray and to stream on Mubi

Around the middle of Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau, set in the harsh sertão backcountry of the Brazilian state of Pernambuco, there is a scene that might be familiar from any number of American westerns. Alerted to the fact of something amiss when a herd of horses from a neighbouring farm comes galloping through the village of the film’s title – a lyric interlude, in a movie that abounds in them – two locals ride out to investigate, and arrive to find the entire household butchered.

In the western of Hollywood’s Golden Age, this would be a sign of an impending threat to the fragile outpost of civilisation amid the wilderness – bandits perhaps, or more likely a belligerent Native American tribe on the warpath. Here too it signifies an impending threat, but one that comes from the descendants of those western settlers, Americans abroad with no civilisation to bestow, only bloodlust to slake.

Filho and co-director Dornelles, a filmmaker in his own right and production designer on Filho’s Neighbouring Sounds (2012) and Aquarius (2016), aren’t the first Brazilians to rebuild the western with local materials – most famously, one can cite the example of Antonio das Mortes (1969) by Glauber Rocha, who once wrote of the western as “the blood which runs through the veins of the American man”. For its first half, Bacurau proceeds as a sort of portrait of a frontier community, as detailed with incident and almost as rich in atmosphere as the little Oregon town that Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage (1946) gave us, replete with the presence of a local balladeer à la Hoagy Carmichael.

In the outpost of Bacurau, however, no attempt is being made to reproduce the civilisation of the rest of Brazil; the fictional community, with its largely black and indigenous population, has been imagined as a quilombo, one of the culturally distinct settlements of runaway slaves that dot the Brazilian hinterlands, as depicted in Linduarte Noronha’s proto-Cinema Novo text Aruanda (1960). Powerful hallucinogens are here a part of the locals’ balanced diet, and sex workers mix without stigma with the rest of the community.

From what we can gather, the village is run along communal lines – when expired foodstuffs are donated by an unscrupulous and despised local politician, they are divvied up with no instruction other than for everyone to take as needed. I say ‘‘from what we can gather’’, because Filho and Dornelles’s approach is to give us only as much information as we require – there is no explanation for the dispute over water rights that seems to have put the village at odds with the government, nor what precisely drove a small coterie of young men, led by Silvero Pereira’s Lunga, to live in isolation from the community, only to be drawn back by catastrophe.

Deliberate withholding is also key to the film’s narrative strategy, proceeding as it does through a kind of baton-passing of the POV. After staying among the residents of Bacurau and nervously observing, with them, the auguries of something sinister afoot – the first indication is a scattering of coffins spilled across a road by an overturned truck – the film gloms on to two suspicious vacationers from the urban south and follows them to their employers, those awful Americans.

The leader of the Yanks is a suave German-American, played by Udo Kier, and it is hard to say if he and his group are soldiers of fortune or soldiers of leisure, down in the sertão to play Make Your Own My Lai with the permission of local government, out on an ultraviolent glamping trip replete with vintage firearms. (One of the girls goes out to battle carrying a Thompson submachine gun, a favourite of the Prohibition era.) Here, the blood that runs through the veins of the American man – and woman  has gone very, very bad.

The anachronistic arsenals on display only increase Bacurau’s out-of-time feeling, which comes quite literally to a head near the end of the film, when a line of trophy severed noggins – an image that might seem to belong to a distant past of tribal warfare – are photographed by observers with smartphones and tablets. The film’s setting is given as “a few years from now” by a piece of onscreen text, but the science-fiction flourishes are few, excepting an automatic translation device that makes an appearance at a key moment and the drones the Americans use, shaped like 1950s-style flying saucers. An opening shot looking down on Earth from above, crossed by a passing satellite before descending to the remote setting of Bacurau, establishes the film’s future as today’s surveillance society, and the ubiquity of camera-eyes provides two nice bits of business: one involving the internet celebrity of the village assassin (Thomas Aquino), the other an impromptu field fuck between two of the charged-up US shooters after a kill, as observed by a passing drone, which in its combination of libido and militaristic sadism inspires memories of Lynndie England and Charles Graner.

The degree to which the Americans are operating as outside hired hands or paying for the pleasure remains ambiguous – they seem neither competent enough to be professionals, nor wealthy enough to afford bloodsport, though perhaps it is part of the film’s premise that in the future even a man who works in HR in a supermarket can afford to play The Most Dangerous Game.

As their captain, Kier gives the only compelling characterisation of the lot, clammy and cruel. The others are varying degrees of parochial, arrogant, racist, bloodthirsty and boorish – which, sure, fair enough – but, more problematically, not capable as a body of actors of investing the intended black comedy of, say, a scene in which they descend into semantic bickering about when it is or is not ethically acceptable to kill a child.

Such murkiness does not extend to Filho and Dornelles’s style, marked as it is by a dry, hard, matter-of-fact clarity – a horizontally rolling widescreen, occasionally crossed by Kurosawa-reminiscent wipes – which even in the final showdown doesn’t descend into incoherence. A former film critic, Filho makes no secret of his debts: Bacurau’s school is named for one ‘‘Prof João Carpinteira’’. Given to the occasional pulsing zoom or showy split diopter shot, their approach is not so unadorned as, say, that of S. Craig Zahler in Dragged Across Concrete (2018), but Filho and Dornelles are looking to some of the same tough, unsentimental masters – and to call Zahler’s film simply a work of the ‘right’ and Filho and Dornelles’s one of the ‘left’ would be to melt them down to an unrecognisable form.

Altering the context of their sources, Filho and Dornelles demonstrate the remarkable power that remains in well-worn genre tropes when employed with force and intelligence. The film concludes with an illustration of the continued ability of museum pieces to be, in the right hands, efficient killing machines.

Originally published: 13 March 2020

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