There’s been a lot of noise around this crowd-pleasing genre mash-up from Brazil; after carting off the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes (and winning a wealth of awards at other film festivals around the globe), Bacurau arrives on Scottish shores with quite a reputation preceding it. It’s not hard to see why: as a damning indictment of western exploitation of the South American country, as a political satire on the corruption and hypocrisy of those in power and as a stunning spectacle of cinematic theatre, Bacurau is an unqualified success across the board.
The film opens on Teresa (Barbará Colen), who is returning to the eponymous town nestled deep in the northern Brazilian hinterland for the funeral of her grandmother. It’s clear from the outset that things are not as they should be in this backwater community; the roads are blocked by armed militia, coffins line the potholed thoroughfare along which Teresa travels and, on arrival at Bacurau, she is wordlessly given some sort of oral medication. But if that setup seems unsettling enough, things are about to get a whole lot more bizarre and sinister very soon.
While it might initially seem like Teresa is to comprise the central character in this narrative, Dornelles and Mendonça Filho quickly dispense with convention and switch the focus to the town itself, including all of its larger-than-life inhabitants. There’s Plinio (Wilson Rabelo), the cool-headed schoolmaster who is Teresa’s father; Domingas (Sônia Braga), the slightly unhinged doctor; Pacote (Thomas Aquino), the so-called “trigger king” trying to change his ways; Lunga (Silvero Pereira), the mullet-toting revolutionary; Tony Jr (Thardelly Lima), the money-grabbing mayor who just wants the townspeople’s votes but cares little for their welfare. Already a melting pot of intrigue, it soon becomes clear that Bacurau is under siege from an unseen enemy.
The identity of this enemy is not fully revealed, but its agents are manifestly white and privileged. And so the film reveals itself to be a nuanced takedown of the current state of affairs in Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil; Dornelles and Mendonça Filho do an exemplary job of highlighting how the overseas elite treat the country as their own plaything, indulging in mere sport while people are struggling to survive. At the same time, special scorn is reserved for the Brazilians complicit in their own country’s exploitation, as the filmmakers skewer a country (and, more internationally, a world) in which taking care of number one trumps all else.
But don’t let that fool you into thinking Bacurau is a political snorefest; quite the opposite. The script is expertly paced to feed us just enough confusing titbits of information to whet our interest, but not too few to incite exasperation. As the story progresses, events escalate out of control and the simmering tension spills over into Quentin Tarantino-esque levels of violence. Indeed, there’s much common ground between Tarantino’s early work and this snappy, stylish thriller, with lashings of Alejandro Jodorowsky and even some Sergio Leone thrown in for good measure.
The end result of that hodgepodge of styles and cinematic influences is an enthralling film which keeps the viewer hooked from start to finish. From the moment Teresa sets foot in this forgotten corner of the country, we’re instantly engaged in the town’s population and its plight. That intrigue only becomes entrenched as the situation develops, with the political commentary a secondary complement to the picture rather than a domineering distraction. By all means, go for the thrills, but come back to it and cogitate on its meaning for all of Brazil.