Though two and a quarter hours long, “Bacurau” has enough thrills, violence, suspense and rich human spectacle to reward our attention. But, what we take away mostly is a single-minded and original vision of human conflict at the most primal level.
Co-written and co-directed by two Brazilian filmmakers, Kleber Mendonca Filho (“Aquarius”, 2016) and Juliano Dornelles, it is a story both realistic and symbolically resonant. The fictional Bacurau is a small, poor village in Northern Brazil that seems to have had to fight for its survival for generations. It opens at the funeral of a beloved matriarch, and many villagers have returned just to pay respects, including her granddaughter, Teresa, played by Barbara Colin. A nurse, she has secretly brought desperately needed medications, which the government has blocked in a long-standing campaign to destroy Bacurau. It has even removed the village from its maps.
The reasons for the conflict are never entirely clear. We learn that Tony Jr, the mayor of a nearby town, played by Thardelly Lima, has cut off Bacurau’s water supply because it somehow stands in the way of a corrupt deal, but this is left murky. But what is clear is that the residents are a proud and extremely insulated community, who have built a museum honoring their legendary heroes. They see themselves as eternal outsiders, with an almost tribal identity. Strangers who pass through are held in suspicion. The village is considered such a problem that Tony Jr. hires a gang of white racist mercenaries to kill the entire population. They are each promised a reward for their kills, and are so jealous that when two native Brazilian mercenaries kill some villagers, they are quickly dispatched by the group; after all, the tally is only supposed to be for “whites”. Their leader is Michael, played by veteran German actor Udo Kier, and he has his hands full controlling them.
The film has the scope and epic feel of American and Italian westerns, which both Filho and Dornelles acknowledged in an interview. But it is also meant to symbolize political conflicts that are native to Brazil alone. I am sure that Brazilian audiences are seeing something at a level that I cannot experience.
The story is an interweaving of conflicts and relationships, a succession of short scenes that transition with no single dramatic thread. This creates suspense, and what can legitimately be called an overhanging dread. A flying saucer appears from nowhere to track a man on a motorbike. But we learn it’s a spy drone, just two feet across, tracking the villagers’ movements. A truck delivering precious water is discovered to have bullet holes – but when did it happen? The villagers warmly welcome the return of Pacote (Thomas Aquino), a local who left to assassinate a number of the village’s political enemies. Teresa whispers to him: sleep with me tonight.
The violence is sudden, bloody and quick. The most violent scene shows a flabby middle-aged couple, both nude, shooting two hired killers with shotguns, then trying to save the wounded one.
It’s no spoiler to say that the village triumphs, in a “Magnificent Seven” type showdown. But the villagers spare Tony Jr. and Michael, who await special fates designed for them.
Their punishments, ritualized in detail, represent the resilience of a deeply shared tribal identity, the dominant theme of the film. It summons the D.H. Lawrence story, “The Woman Who Rode Away”. The villagers share a tradition of pride, courage and an overwhelming hatred of outsiders, all of which are preserved in the museum. It seems to define them more than any traditional religion, which is hardly mentioned. They are often shown in groups, and the sense is that they experience all of life in public tribal rituals. Whether a dance celebration, a gathering for a battle plan or a funeral procession, they come together proudly with a strict mutuality of purpose.
Personal choice is still respected, however, just not given much attention. Sex is casual, functional and not particularly private. The children are left alone to form their own in-group, creating daring games to test each other. Once, however, the game ends in tragedy. But even in mourning, the village shares equally in the family’s pain.
There is no single major role, but Sonia Braga, as Domingas, the village doctor, seems to personify the dominant character of the village, at least in her sober periods. Rarely smiling, she seems to judge her fellow villagers on how fiercely they support her defiance of their common enemies.
Bacurau is only a setting in a movie, not a real place, but I still have the taste of its dirt in my mouth.