Film Review: ‘Bacurau’
What a great couple of years it’s been for Latin cinema. It feels as if South American, Hispanic and Chicano films have taken a forgotten page from the Hollywood playbook and reapplied it to cinema. Forgetting fancy effects, stars and hype, they’ve put story back front and central, so much so that the sinister political allegory/ creepfest ‘We Are What We Are’ could be remade by being moved from Mexico City to the Catskills without any lasting damage. If anything, the two versions of the same story work better in a double bill. One plays out as a fable of social decay, the other an eerie tale of religious extremism.
The intricate Korean comedy-thriller ‘Parasite’ told a universal story as well, but another film was up for gongs the same year and perhaps garnered less attention than it should have. ‘Bacurau’ keeps you on your toes from the outset. First you try to decide what genre you’re watching from a collection of brief, disparate scenes. Is it science fiction? A homespun tale of communal village life? A political thriller? A magical-realist fable? Could there even be a touch of ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ here?
Well, it’s all of those and none. Because that wrong-footing continues as the writer-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles are going to keep you guessing – and make sure you watch the corners of the screen for clues that skitter by in the blink of an eye. This is their game, to show you the parts of the elephant without revealing the full-sized creature until near the end – and even when you walk away, one more element hits you in the eye. The filmmakers are commenting on the current horrific state of Brazilian politics.
But if you’re going to do that, make sure it’s a fun ride. The tale starts with a young woman getting a lift in a water truck that hits a coffin lying on the road. Coffins will become a predominant theme of the film. Teresa is returning to the town of Bacurau on the day of her aunt’s funeral. The townsfolk hold a wonderful ceremony honouring her, marred only by the wild ranting of an old lady (the legendary Sônia Braga) who subsequently proves to be the town doctor.
Bacurau is a quilombo, a settlement founded by escaped slaves many years before. It has a history and even its own museum. While the audience takes a leisurely stroll around the town and gets to know everyone, the townsfolk start popping hallucinogens – but why? And did you just see a flying saucer pass by, or have the drugs kicked in? The pieces of the puzzle are surreal but never fear, a master plan becomes clear in time, even if the film feels like it might turn out to be a mash-up of ‘The Three Amigos’ and ‘The Wicker Man’.
The real trouble begins for the residents when a dozen riderless horses canter into town at night – something bad has happened at a nearby farm. There are other signs and portents; the schoolteacher is shocked to discover that Bacurau has vanished from his GPS, and that the phones have stopped picking up a signal. When the water truck gets riddled with bullet holes, it’s clear that someone doesn’t want Bacurau to survive.
Where we go from this point is too delicious to describe – let’s just say that there’s a fantastic late performance ahead from Udo Kier, and a last half hour of breath-withholding suspense. There’s an explanation for almost everything, too. But searching for the almost afterwards is what’s so rewarding about great films.