A water truck bumps along pot-holed asphalt and then dirt roads. The driver maneuvers around a traffic accident in which a motorcyclist lies dead and a truck has spilled its load of coffins. The tanker truck passes an abandoned building that once was a municipal school, then a sign: “Bacurau 17 km: if you go, go in peace.” The truck’s passenger, Teresa (Bárbara Colen), arrives in the village with a red suitcase that is carried overhead by an assembled crowd into a house where it’s revealed she has brought needed vaccines. Brown-skinned Teresa has come back for the funeral of her grandmother, the very black town matriarch, Carmelita (Lia de Itamaracá).
When the village schoolteacher tries to show his students Bacurau on a map, he–and they–discover it isn’t there: not on the satellite photos on his smart phone, not on the larger computer version in the classroom. It exists only in a rough, hand-made drawing.
Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima), a slick, light-skinned pol, shows up campaigning, with his large portable video monitor. Through his microphone, he shouts promises of water and food to empty streets. The populace has gone inside to show their lack of respect for him. His promises are realized in the form of a dump-truck of tattered books, out-dated food products, and a stultifying drug. “It’s bad for you, addictive, and it dulls your wits,” explains the village doctor Domingas, an almost white-skinned, red- and grey-haired Sônia Braga (“Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,” 1976, and more than 80 other films).
Tony Jr. doesn’t seem to be the worst of the bad guys. That category is reserved for white Americans.
Tony Jr. doesn’t seem to be the worst of the bad guys. That category is reserved for white Americans, the leader of whom is a blue-eyed archetypal Nazi-like German-American, Michael (Udo Kier).
When the villagers realize they are under siege, they call on one of their own who has been hiding from the law: Lunga (Silvero Pereira), a transgender warrior-type. Later, one of the white gunmen probes Bacurau and wanders into the village museum, where he sees images of armed townspeople and a photo of four chopped-off heads. These are the first suggestions of the corrupt government’s motives for withholding water and medicines from the village and its attempt to wipe it off the map, figuratively and literally.
The good guys are good. The town revels in a nearly mythic communal life, complete with psychotropic drugs, some unabashed nudity, and the region’s largest library. The bad guys are evil—with lots of weapons to prove it. And within their evil, they have standards, standards that illustrate the depth of their white supremacy.
Brazilian co-directors and writers Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho (“Aquarius” 2016) nonetheless present not a simple Manichean melodrama, but a trenchant commentary on surprisingly contemporary themes: blatant racism and government disintegration and corruption. Their screenplay contrasts communal scenes of celebratory funerals and dancing with gory murders, unselfconscious sex in the community with violence-equals-sex between white killers, Domingas’s emotional outburst in one scene with her sternly rationalist instructions in another. Set “a few years from now,” the film also blends modern technology (cell phone communication in the village; drone use by the gunmen) with rural idyll. The story-telling of “Bacurau” is remarkably subtle; only at the end are there indications of what the coffins in the early scene represent.
“Bacurau” is thematically tied to “Chinatown” (1974) in its focus on the politicization of water, and to “Parasite” (2019) both in its clear-eyed look at the separation of classes—here by color instead of socio-economically—and in its use of violence. There’s no lack of killing, and by multiple means, from machete to high-powered rifle. In wreaking revenge, usually a satisfying turn, the characters employ their inventiveness, including a re-creation of Don Quixote. That said—and despite a chilling night-time scene featuring the village’s children—to categorize “Bacurau” as a horror film would be misleading.
“Bacurau” suffers from the small screen. The subtitles are often difficult to read against a white background. Darken your TV room and sit close. This prize-winning film—including the Cannes Jury Prize—examines critical contemporary issues with both playfulness and power.
Available: For rent or purchase through Amazon, Fandago and elsewhere; see JustWatch here; and also streaming from—if you want to support—local independent cinemas such as North Park, Film at Lincoln Center, Laemmle.
Bacurau ★★★1/2 (out of 4 stars)
Directors: Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho
Starring: Sônia Braga, Bárbara Colen, Silvero Pereira, Thardelly Lima, Udo Kier, Thomas Aquino, Lia de Itamaracá
Country: Brazil, France
Languages: Portuguese and English; subtitled in English
Runtime: 131 minutes
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