Cannes 2019 review: Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles)

In Kleber Mendonça Filho’s latest (a departure of sorts after Aquarius), belonging to a place is first and foremost a question of trackable coordinates, topography, and nomenclature. The location of the titular small village is pinpointed with enough global precision that the opening shot zeroes in on it from outer space – and with that, its profile is raised proudly, perhaps as the last bastion of humanity. Not for nothing, when someone asks what the inhabitants of Bacurau are called, a young boy replies, “the people”. Once on the ground, though, the palpable sense of malaise the inhabitants feel (the matriarch has just died, mysterious coffins punctuate the side of the road) is reinforced by the town getting geographically unstuck, first identified only as “west of Pernambuco”, and later losing its literal place on the digital map of the world, in a sign of the danger to come.

That is before the film begins contrasting the eerie, textured plunge into Bacurau’s social dynamics with the jarring and brashly matter-of-fact introduction of those planning to wage war on it. Mendonça, who shares a directing credit here with his once production designer Juliano Dornelles, is as uncompromising in his references to Brazil’s culture and history as he is gleefully open to turning the film into a genre exercise, in a combination that never quite gels but was probably not meant to. It’s uneasy, and pointed, and alienating – it doesn’t let you off as easy as a mere siege thriller with some thematic finesse. Rather, it slams brutality and anthropology into each other, reveling in the dissonance.

And so the bunch of killers from the States are not only shown for all their coldness in casual conversation about the many different ways they’re going to massacre the people in Bacurau; they’re also portrayed as extremely bland and vacuous, and the acting is clunky (except for Udo Kier, who has perfected the art of looking slightly out of place to the point that he never actually does, not even as the German head of an organization of American assassins in Northeastern Brazil). It’s yet another layer working subtly to highlight their disturbing otherness, making their carnage even more pointlessly painful to watch. By contrast, the villagers’ nature emerges organically and with plenty of local color, even as part of a heterogeneous ensemble led by Sônia Braga’s bickering authority (but actually guided by Teresa – Barbara Colen – whose soft mournful eyes represent a lifeline throughout the story).

Another kind of geography – this time the spatial relationships governing a tense, gruesome climax in which the town decides to meet violence with violence – is surprisingly tight: Western atmospheres are peppered with sci-fi touches, the comedy is pierced by goriness, John Carpenter gets referenced by the score as if the set-up wasn’t already reminiscent of some of his greatest hits, and the mayhem neatly seals the thematic resonance with the narrative of Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Though inevitable and pretty aptly auspicious in its depiction of a community growing more resilient when its members are being picked off one by one, the link is rather broad – much like the town itself, it works better when deployed as a general symbol than as a specific example. For that, refer to another Brazilian film from this year, Gabriel Mascaro’s Divino Amor, which provided an indirect but supremely elegant political allegory.