Extreme times call for extreme cinema. Early in the Cannes Film Festival, we have already had three films in Official Competition that address current political and ecological disasters with dire visions of human culpability. Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die finds a metaphor for America’s Trumpian malaise in a zombie apocalypse. Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables presents a powerful if somewhat schematic portrait of a poor Parisian suburb where racial tensions explode after a drone camera, operated by a gawky young boy (and neighbourhood voyeur), captures the shooting of a black adolescent by a policeman.
But the most audacious of the three surely is Bacurau, a bloody revenge drama from Brazilian auteur Kleber Mendonca Filho, teaming up with his long-time production designer Juliano Dornelles who is granted co-director status here. (That the film was shot by two separate units headed by each of the directors but achieves a seamless visual and tonal coherence is one of its miracles.) Mendonca made one of the most impressive debut features of the last decade, Neighbouring Sounds, in which he initiated a cardinal theme – that corruption in Brazil taints everyday events and personal exchanges – that he extended rather too explicitly in his subsequent film, Aquarius, which starred iconic Brazilian actress Sonia Braga, who has become something of a muse for Mendonca.
The once-glamorous Braga returns in Bacurau as an old, foul-mouthed alcoholic doctor with a long, dyed-red braid and glasses in the eponymous village in the northeastern sertao of Brazil, the sere landscape of which Mendonca and Dornelles exploit in some of the most ravishing widescreen images imaginable. (The directors, who employed 1970s Panavision anamorphic lenses to attain their desired visual texture, are unembarrassed by offering a rhapsodic montage of crimson sunsets, a burgeoning moon and scudding clouds.) The film opens with a traffic accident on a rural highway that causes a truckload of coffins to spill its contents onto the road. Those boxes will become the central motif of Bacurau, as corpses quickly begin appearing to fill them. (Another shipment of caskets appears at film’s end, emphasizing the infinite violence that the directors discern as central to their country’s calamitous state.) One of them is the aged matriarch of the village, whose funeral procession announces the film’s folkloric mode. Indeed, in its keen attention to rural lore, pageantry, music and ritual, Bacurau seems like a conscious reversion to the films of Brazil’s Cinema Novo of the sixties and seventies.
The village of Bacurau, whose name is freighted with metaphoric meaning in Portuguese – it suggests both a nocturnal bird of intricate camouflage and the last ride home at night – proves something of a socialist utopia whose inhabitants wander about nude and have copious sex. Everyone shares food, medicine and water, which is increasingly scarce since the corrupt mayor – tellingly given the English moniker Tony Jr. and kitted like a gringo in cowboy boots – caused a shortage. Initially offering a bewildering welter of characters and incidents, the film sorts itself out to tell the allegorical tale of a group of American gun fanatics arriving to cut the village off from all contact with the outside world so that they can hunt down its inhabitants in a game of joy-killing. Points are given for each adult terminated, and although children are forbidden targets, the most vicious of the stalkers cannot resist offing a little boy who ventures into the darkness on a dare. (That the hunters are headed by Udo Kier risks dragging the film into the realm of camp.)
Mendonca and Dornelles are cinephiles of the first water and Bacurau fairly flaunts its many filmic devices, many of them knowingly old-fashioned, such as zooms, superimpositions, lap dissolves and soft wipes (the latter a signature editing trick of Akira Kurosawa). The duo claims that when they hit a blockage while writing the script, they watched a favourite film to reinspire them, citing John Carpenter as a primary source. One also imagines that they consumed Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and countless films by Sergio Leone, perhaps even some slasher movies and classics of the “hunting humans” sub-genre, such as The Most Dangerous Game and The Naked Prey.
Conceived by the directors as a western, Bacurau also incorporates elements of sci-fi – it is set in the new future – magic realism and the local genre known as cangaco, based on a form of “social banditry” in northeastern Brazil in the 19th and early-20th centuries and a popular subject in Brazilian cinema of the fifties and sixties, is invoked here in the figure of Lunga, a mythic criminal conscripted by the villagers to help protect them from the hunters. Festooned with jewellery and tattoos, sporting a flowing golden mullet, the outlaw Lunga is fierce and takes to his samurai role with great relish, leading one villager to wonder if he doesn’t overdo the beheadings.
The director’s affectionate invocation of cangaco is central to the film’s emphasis on Brazilian tradition and history, represented in the film by the local museum, which the inhabitants value immensely. When we finally get inside the stone edifice at film’s end, we register that the village’s history is mostly one of violence – an old newspaper headline reads “Rebellion quashed in Bacurau” – and that its catastrophic past is continuous with the present of Bolsanaro’s Brazil, embodied in the film by the corrupt mayor campaigning for re-election. Mendonca, who called the overthrow of the previous Brazilian government a coup, takes evident pleasure in his dispatch of the mendacious Tony Jr., a kind of personal revenge against the current state. Extreme times indeed.
The Cannes Film Festival runs May 14-25
James Quandt is the senior programmer for TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.