Film

Harsh Lessons From Brazil’s So-Called “Helpless”

Bacurau, a ferociously angry film, straddles the thriller and the social drama, invoking the history of resistance to state violence in the Brazilian sertão.

From Bacurau (2019), dirs. Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles (image courtesy New York Film Festival)

Previously known for working in social realism — that most respectable of film modes — Brazilian directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles have now blended some of its conventions with those of decidedly seedier fare. The opening credits of their latest film Bacurau utilize a sinister font right out of a ’70s exploitation film, and the eerie synth score is straight John Carpenter. A character beholds a miniature drone made to look like a UFO from a ’50s movie. The resulting syncretism is one I’d be hard-pressed to categorize as either a thriller operating under an unusually restrained aesthetic, or as a small-town drama which happens to feature a few heads exploding. It is a ferociously angry film, but not a loud one — a friendly smile that doesn’t reach the eyes.

“A few years from now,” Teresa (Bárbara Colen) returns to her remote hometown of Bacurau in Brazil’s sertão region to attend her grandmother’s funeral. Despite the focus on mourning rituals and re-familiarizing oneself with old acquaintances, those hints of genre fare flavoring the film’s construction tip us off that something bad is on its way. Sure enough, local students studying geography pull up Google Maps and realize that Bacurau has been erased. The town’s water truck arrives leaking through bullet holes. And who’s surveying them with that UFO drone?

From Bacurau (image courtesy Toronto International Film Festival)

The closer the danger encroaches on Bacurau, the more obviously the film’s construction embraces the vocabulary of the thriller, particularly invoking Brian de Palma-like flourishes, such as slow motion and the use of split diopters. Yet it never really moves out of the form of the realist drama, maintaining mostly still shots and measured editing. A band of villainous hunters have a casual conversation about all the innocent people they’re going to murder which devolves into an argument over whether it’s appropriate to refer to their leader (Udo Kier) as a Nazi — all of which is presented with a completely straight face. These dynamics magnify the impact of the escalating violence, whether it’s employed for dread, laughs, or catharsis. And as the film progresses, its use of violence gradually moves from the first category to the latter two. What initially seems like a horror film about innocent people being helplessly slaughtered instead becomes a strident statement on resistance.

One has to get into some spoiler territory to parse the heavy political subtext at play here, which is unveiled not just as the plot reveals its twists, but also as one thinks on it afterwards. It turns out that Kier’s squad of Anglo foreigners have paid to hunt and kill the inhabitants of Bacurau. The villagers’s government has literally sold them to the West. This speaks to a long history of destructive capitalism in Brazil, running back from the times of colonialism up through the disastrous policies of the current Bolsonaro government. But there’s a historical precedent of resistance to state violence in the sertão. Appropriately, in the same way Bacurau straddles the thriller and the social drama, it invokes this history both as a thematic point and as a brilliantly set up Chekov’s gun. Locals keep asking interlopers if they’re interested in checking out the Bacurau museum, which they always condescendingly decline to do. What follows is a harsh lesson in learning from history vis-à-vis repeating it.

From Bacurau (image courtesy Toronto International Film Festival)

The film’s queasy interplay between genre dynamics and political and social commentary can sometimes dovetail into surreal, Tarantino-esque moments. In one sequence, the “tourists” calmly explain to their light-skinned, urban-based Brazilian guides how they are in fact “not white” like them. As far as they’re concerned, the guides are still Latin American, and thus no more human than any of the people of Bacurau. That this is then immediately followed by the hunters getting the go-ahead to execute them makes for an unmistakable statement about what comes of those who betray their own, and try to pursue capitalistic delineations between haves and have-nots. The ones further up the ladder are still going to kick you down if you try to climb it.

So when the tables turn on the foreigners in the last act, the string of kills that ensue come not just with the satisfaction of well-executed suspense but also of the exhilaration of the role reversal. With Bacurau, Filho and Dornelles co-opt the trappings of genres often considered quintessentially American, especially the western, and turn them against their imperialist origins. That use of violence is complicated, and the film itself is attendantly messy. Some plot turns don’t quite make sense, and Teresa sort of fades into the background as things go on. Sônia Braga‘s incredible, queer alcoholic doctor matriarch character is also underutilized. But as a whole, it’s nonetheless an intense and gratifying experience.

From Bacurau (image courtesy New York Film Festival)

Bacurau (2019), dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, will screen on October 1 and 2 at Film at Lincoln Center(165 W. 65th Street), as part of the 57th New York Film Festival. 

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