Bacurau: the feature film dividing Brazilian audiences

bacurau poster

Bacurau, the latest feature film from director Kleber Mendonça Filho (Aquarius, Neighboring Sounds) and his longtime art director Juliano Dornelles, is the talk of the town among Brazilian cinephiles. Opening on August 29 to a BRL 1.5 million box office, it is a rare example of a domestic film—which isn’t a comedy or action flick—being able to stir up significant attention from the public.

Set “a few years from now” in the arid backlands of Brazil’s Northeast, the film tells the story of Bacurau, a small town which has disappeared from conventional maps and quickly comes under threat from mysterious forces. Starring Sônia Braga, Udo Kier, and Bárbara Colen, Bacurau was applauded and decorated at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where it won the Jury Prize.

</p> <p>The film has taken on a political edge, being considered by some as an indictment of the sitting Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, and some showings of the film have even seen audiences burst into applause, chanting anti-government slogans.</p> <p>Three of <strong>The Brazilian Report&#8217;</strong>s journalists went to see <em>Bacurau </em>this past week, and here is what they made of it.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img src="" alt="bacurau poster" class="wp-image-23840" srcset=" 768w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 768px) 100vw, 768px" /></figure> <h2>Euan Marshall: &#8220;What do you call someone from Bacurau?&#8221;</h2> <p>Engaging and mysterious, <em>Bacurau </em>is a mixture of Weird West with Northeast Brazilian <a href=""><em>cordel</em> literature</a>, doused in psychedelia. It is a challenging type of film to get right: juggling multiple genres and working in dozens of metaphors often tips films like <em>Bacurau</em> off the rails in an overreaching attempt to be <em>too clever</em>. This, however, is not the case with Kleber Mendonça&#8217;s latest. A tight script (there is little to no flab in its 132-minute runtime), involving plot and a few superb performances keep <em>Bacurau</em> chugging along all the way to its destination.</p> <p>Less overtly political than some of Mendonça&#8217;s previous works—particularly <em>Aquarius</em> (2016)—<em>Bacurau </em>has been picked up on as a <a href="">denunciation</a> of the Jair Bolsonaro government and the far-right shift in Brazil. This link can only go so far, however, as the film predates Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s ascendancy to the president&#8217;s office. It is, however, a protest film, which finds a home in the current Brazilian milieu of creeping violence and the perceived opening up of Brazil&#8217;s veins to foreign interests.</p> <p>Notable here is that <em>Bacurau</em> gives us a much-needed different view of the <em><a href="">sertão</a></em>—Brazil&#8217;s backlands which so often have stereotyped by classic works of national literature. Instead of portraying this region as a poor community of simpletons, waiting to be pioneered, exploited or educated by lighter-skinned outsiders, here the protagonist of the film is Bacurau itself, this tiny village in the countryside of Pernambuco. The town and its inhabitants are actors of resistance, solidarity, and community.</p> <p>One line in the script stands out above the rest: when asked by a visitor from Rio de Janeiro &#8220;what do you call someone from Bacurau?&#8221;, a young boy in the local general store innocently retorts: &#8220;People!&#8221;</p> <h2>Lucas Berti: between flashback and tragicomic view of the future </h2> <p>While the comparisons have already been made on Twitter, Kleber Mendonça and Juliano Dornelles&#8217; <em>Bacurau</em> certainly does have something of the Quentin Tarantino about it. The chilling violence of it all reminded me of a northeastern Brazilian spin-off of <em>Inglourious Basterds </em>(2009), as here, once again, we are forced to choose sides. There are even some interesting Nazi parallels to be drawn, which is almost to be expected when casting Udo Kier in a supporting role.</p> <p>There&#8217;s far more to <em>Bacurau </em>than the violence. Going beyond gory tropical-trash tropes—while consistently treading the fine line between B-movie and arthouse—the film goes deep into Brazil&#8217;s cinematic references. The aesthetics ring true, depicting forgotten small towns, old women watching the day go by, and mongrel dogs snoozing on the front porch of old thatched houses.</p> <p>There are visual cues harking back to the <em>cangaço</em> period—the phenomenon of rural banditry which swept the Northeast of Brazil in the first half of the 20th century, embodied by the notorious outlaw Captain Lampião.&nbsp;</p> <p><em>Bacurau </em>sits somewhere between a flashback and a tragicomic view of the future. The contrast of modern technology set against an impoverished, unchanged northeastern Brazilian town give an air of timelessness, that some things will always be the same, regardless of the march of technology.</p> <p>There is also an element of dystopia, as certain prevailing platforms of the current moment become more and more widespread and accepted in <em>Bacurau</em>&#8216;s ambiguous and chilling time-setting of &#8220;in a few years from now.&#8221; In a soup of deteriorating faith in politics, environmental carelessness and encroaching foreign interests, the drama of <em>Bacurau</em> plays out. A must-see movie.</p> <h2>Natália Scalzaretto: An outcome of polarized times?</h2> <p>Born and raised in São Paulo, <em>Bacurau</em> took my breath away like a solid punch to the stomach. Not as a Brazilian, but as someone from Brazil&#8217;s Southeast. In my view, that’s precisely what the film is all about: a country that is constantly looking for its own identity—either mimicking trends abroad or going back to its own roots. <em>Bacurau</em> is about living &#8220;in between.&#8221; The kids trying to learn on state-of-the-art tablets, in a mud hut school; the south-easterners that don’t feel like they belong in Brazil, but are not seen as equals abroad; the passivity that can turn into raw violence in the blink of an eye; the surrealism that is everyday life in South America.</p> <p>I took <em>Bacurau</em> as a provocation, in the best sense. It left me confused, ashamed and potentially more pessimistic than when I entered the cinema. It rubs salt in the wound of Brazil&#8217;s complexities, which is an even more poignant message in such polarized times. However, I don’t see it as a reflection of 2019: <em>Bacurau </em>is and will be a timeless drama, for as long as Brazilians fail to find their way as a society.&nbsp;</p> <p>The movie is not here to unite people, and its legacy will depend on how it is treated by today&#8217;s viewers. Instead of pointing out new ways, the town of Bacurau turns to itself when under threat, suggesting that things will always stay the same. I’m not sure this is the answer to Brazil&#8217;s problems, but, as the film shows, the war isn&#8217;t won by sporadic battles. Maybe the answer to that question is what will define <em>Bacurau</em> as a pivotal wake-up call or another way to state the obvious.

Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

Natália Scalzaretto

Natália Scalzaretto has worked for companies such as Santander Brasil and Reuters, where she covered news ranging from commodities to technology. Most recently, she worked as an Editor for Trading News, the information division from the TradersClub investor community.

Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs—specializing Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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