Flying saucers, sleazy politicians and heavily armed killers descend on a sleepy Brazilian village in Bacurau, the latest socially conscious drama from Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius director Kleber Mendonca Filho, who shares credit this time with his regular production designer Juliano Dornelles. Despite some graphic violence in its latter half, Mendonca Filho’s third narrative feature strikes a lighter tone than his previous work, combining sunny small-town comedy with a fable-like plot and a sprinkle of magic realism. It’s an impressively rich mix, but perhaps a little too rich, feeling both overstuffed and undercooked in places.
With its bandit gangs, gun battles and widescreen badlands vistas, Bacurau is fully loaded with Western signifiers. It also tips its ten-gallon hat to vintage John Carpenter, whose pulsing electronic composition “Night” even appears on the eclectic soundtrack. But after the acute observations on class, race and power that animated Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius, this leisurely paced, tonally uneven curiosity feels light on dramatic bite. By riffing on local folklore and regional tensions, it almost certainly loses something in translation to non-Brazilian audiences. Following its world premiere in competition at Cannes, this offbeat genre hybrid will likely be a tougher sell in overseas markets than Mendonca Filho’s previous work.
Bacurau is notionally set a few years into the near future, but it seems to exist outside time. The eponymous village at the heart of the story is a remote, impoverished, sun-baked backwater in Brazil’s dusty northeastern interior. Hemmed in by rocky hills, it appears on no maps and attracts few visitors. This fantasy vision of rustic charm and multi-racial unity was dreamed up by the two directors, who both hail from the region.
After headlining Aquarius, Brazilian screen legend Sonia Braga returns in a very different guise in Bacurau, this time playing a hot-blooded village elder as part of a crowded international ensemble cast. The story opens with a highly charged communal funeral that gathers all the village’s scattered exiles home, including the dead woman’s granddaughter Teresa (Barbara Colen) and reformed outlaw bad-boy Pacote (broodingly sexy Thomas Aquino, doing his best impression of a young Laurence Fishburne).
United in grief, the townsfolk also stand steadfast against common enemies, locking themselves away en masse when boorish mayoral candidate Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima) arrives bearing out-of-date food and illegal medicines as pitiful voting bribes. Meanwhile, in the scrubby mountain hinterlands beyond the village, an androgynous Robin Hood-style outlaw called Lunga (Silvero Pereira) is conducting an ongoing insurgency against the authorities for diverting water from rural peasant communities.
Bacurau ambles along in this lackadaisical semi-comic mode for its first hour before Mendonca Filho and Dornelles introduce a more sinister note. With cellphone coverage mysteriously jammed, the village is buzzed by drones shaped like flying saucers and masked strangers appear out of nowhere. And then the bodies start piling up. Soon the villagers find themselves targeted by a heavily armed assault team, mostly white Americans, who appear to be engaged in a militarized massacre of poor Latinos for bloodsport, with tacit support from shadowy political authorities. But the killers have underestimated the rebel spirit of the villagers, who call on Lunga to help them fight back against all odds.
Mendonca Filho and Dornelles sacrifice some dramatic tension by taking us inside the assault team early in the story. Led by Michael (cult pulp-movie icon Udo Kier), these bloodthirsty gringos are too crudely depicted to function as the menacing neo-colonial monsters they are meant to be. They make dumb racist statements, bicker like spoiled children and become sexually aroused by their murderous exploits. Their off-key dialogue also feels like the work of non-native English speakers, as if the Portuguese screenplay has simply been fed through Google Translate. Brazil has a long tradition of anti-American critique, for fairly understandable reasons, but this heavy-handed satire just feels woefully clumsy.
Native Brazilians and scholars of the region’s history will appreciate how Mendonca Filho and Dornelles draw on the cangaceiro tradition of flamboyantly dressed “social outlaws” and muse on the lingering scars of coronelism, or unjust rule by powerful oligarchies. Background reading is not essential to enjoying the film, of course, but it probably helps understand it better. Bacurau is visually impressive, purposely evoking the luxurious visual grammar of classic 1970s movies with its vintage anamorphic lens shots, split-focus screens and lateral wipes between scenes. Though handsome in style and admirable in ambition, this sprawling neo-Western never comes together as a satisfying whole.
Production companies: Cinemascopio Producoes, SBS Productions
Cast: Sonia Braga, Udo Kier, Barbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Thardelly Lima, Buda Lira, Clebia Sousa, Danny Barbosa, Jonny Mars, Alli Willow
Directors-screenwriters: Kleber Mendonca Filho, Juliano Dornelles
Producers: Emilie Lesclaux, Said Ben Said, Michel Merkt
Cinematographer: Pedro Sotero
Editor: Eduardo Serrano
Production designer: Thales Junqueira
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: SBS International