Cinephiles can finally catch up with Bacurau, one of 2020’s best films, now streaming on the Criterion Channel. Kleber Mendonça Filho’s and Juliano Dornelles’ award-winning Brazilian film (recently named Best International Film by the TFCA) is certain to captivate audiences as it did critics: Bacurau is a vibrant genre-blending masterpiece of cinematic form. And if you’re wondering if that suggests formal echoes of Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece, Parasite, that would be a resounding yes.
Echoes aside, the filmmakers create something here that is both distinctive and original. Imagine watching a dreamlike fantasy-cum-Western mystery thriller—with some wild comic moments—that takes a sudden sci-fi turn, and you have an inkling of what it feels like to experience Bacurau. Perhaps even more remarkably, for a film that draws on so many seemingly disparate elements, there is a clear, singular vision. One of unspeakable evil that is wrought by misguided notions of absolute power. Referencing the imperialism embedded in Brazilian history, and even in its current sociopolitical realities, Mendonça Filho and Dornelles manage to fashion a complex indictment of colonialism and its inherent disregard for human life.
Following the death of the village matriarch, Carmelita, the rural inhabitants of Bacurau begin to experience some strange happenings. Set in the near future, the denizens are isolated from the larger world both literally and figuratively: a dam is restricting water and access while cell signals disappear precisely at the same time that the town vanishes from the map. Supplies do reach them, but they are regulated by a corrupt local official who only cares about the psychotropic drugs he brings. Add to that the sudden unexplained appearance of foreigners from an entirely different region of the country—and the awareness of the now constant presence of saucer-like drones following the villagers around. Very quickly a sense of doom creeps in to thicken the already loaded atmosphere.
To its credit, Bacurau spends a good portion of time amongst the villagers. It is a remarkable feat on the part of the filmmakers to get us so invested in their lives, especially considering how the film shifts gears. All of these characters are vividly evinced, passionate and complicated souls. There are some stellar performances here alongside a stand-out portrayal of the troubled town doctor by Sonja Braga.
The strong turns continue as the film shifts to focus on the group of foreigners led by Michael (a brilliantly twitchy turn by Udo Kier). These are antsy, trigger happy—even childish—people. Caricatures all. Naturally, our sympathies remain with the more honourable villagers. And so Bacurau becomes an old-fashioned good versus evil movie, as the oppressed fight back against their would-be invaders.
Therein lies the genius of the film. It’s not difficult to create a narrative where the audience cheers for the good guys, but it is an achievement to create such an unforgettable and deeply profound experience. Bacurau is not just about the poor banding together to fight oppression—it is about the persistent and unswerving power of the people. Even when literally fed an opiate for the masses, their resolve remains constant. More importantly, as the ultimate struggle ensues between the two sides, Bacurau breathlessly hammers home the quintessential burning question: who exactly are the real ‘savages’ here?