A joint effort between Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Bacurau is an acid western depicting a ragtag group fighting back against the outsiders who wish to do them harm. Picture Howard Hawks’ classic Rio Bravo, only the heroes are tripping out on ayahuasca.
A blood-soaked anti-imperialist fable and intertextual genre movie it most definitely is, it references everything from The Most Dangerous Game, The Cars That Ate Paris and Cannibal Holocaust to Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, but the film is equally – more importantly – a staunch celebration of home, land and communal bonds. As in his previous work, the Neighbouring Sounds and Aquarius helmer sees these valued principles increasingly under threat in his homeland.
In this regard, then, Bacurau is another of Mendonça Filho’s fascinating studies in the dynamics of the community and plucky little people standing up to big business interests who wish to drag them into a future they want no part of. Only this time, it’s not a defiant one-woman movement, as in Aquarius, but forgotten types struggling to survive in a country moving rapidly away from them. Left to their own devices, forgotten about, seen as an inconvenience, their rights steamrolled over, it’s little wonder they take to strangers lurking in their midst like the Sawyer family take to the hippies on their front porch in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Set in the parched hinterlands of north-east Brazil, the lighting is so harsh on occasion, it might be necessary to watch the film wearing sunglasses and sunscreen for protection. The cinematography ensures the feeling of heat rising and sweat dripping off every image, aiding a febrile tone and allowing widescreen landscapes to appear both seductive and tinged with foreboding. The directors, too, often transition between scenes using wipes and slow dissolves, creating a dreamlike flow.
While the pacing is leisurely, it’s justifiable (perhaps akin to a drug working its way through our system). We need to get a good feel for the environment, to understand why the town is in peril (for a good hour this is playfully teased with red herrings such as witchcraft, UFOs and motorcycle-riding assassins). We learn there is a scarcity of medicines and lack of opportunity.
The local mayor, a buffoon type, has turned off the water supply and won’t turn it back on again until citizens have promised to vote for his re-election in the upcoming poll. But the hardened residents of Bacurau will not yield to him, or anybody else for that matter. This might not be the film you’re quite expecting from the director of arthouse dramas focused on modern life in Brazil, but it fits right in as a variation and continuation of Mendonça Filho’s pet themes.
The 72nd Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn