There has always been the sense of something not quite right in the films of Kleber Mendonça Filho. Arguably one of the most impressive one-two punches from a debut feature filmmaker in recent memory, 2012’s Neighboring Sounds and 2016’s Aquarius are hypnotically languid portrayals of contemporary life in the urban jungle of Recife, Brazil, but underneath both lies a simmering tension ready to explode into unexpected violence. Now with his latest odyssey, the vaguely post-apocalyptic neo-Western Bacurau, that tension boils over completely.
When Bacurau first appeared at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, it seemed like an odd pivot for the Brazilian filmmaker (here sharing co-directing duties with his longtime production designer Juliano Dornelles) to fully embrace genre tropes after the relatively calm arthouse stylings of his previous work. But Filho, a self-avowed superfan of John Carpenter (whose music pops up here, no less), has always let elements of horror and suspense pierce the imagined domesticity of his filmic environments.
The title refers to the fictional village where the action is set, a rural outpost located somewhere in Brazil’s semi-arid backcountry. Rolling back into town for the funeral of her grandmother, Teresa (Bárbara Colen) quickly notices that things are not quite alright. The town’s water supply has been restricted and the citizens have had to rely on inadequate provisions handed down by the corrupt government led by the Trump-ian mayor of the region, an egotistic scumbag appropriately named Tony Junior. The powers that be are so uncaring of the needs of Bacurau that they’ve literally wiped the town off the official country map. And to make matters even worse, a heavily armed mercenary group led by Udo Kier (who else?) is positioned on the outskirts of town, revving themselves up for a wholesale massacre. But you better believe the townspeople of Bacurau aren’t planning on going down without a fight.
Filho and Donelles set up this epic David vs. Goliath struggle as a classic Western, paying serious homage to the work of Sergio Leone in its gorgeous widescreen compositions and escalating back-and-forth tension as the citizens of Bacurau get ready to defend themselves against the impending onslaught. And when the violence does come it is unflinching and brutal, primed to knock you back in your seats like the best that any midnight movie has to offer. But the filmmakers also keep their sense of humour in check, milking the pervasive macho posturing and the banal absurdity of the confrontations to make you giggle despite yourself.
This certainly isn’t some mindless bloodbath, however, as Filho retains his blunt social commentary to make the aftershock of Bacurau linger long past the surface-level thrills. The struggle between corporate/political greed and civic rights has always been the backbone of the director’s work and here it takes on its most explicitly allegorical form. Purportedly set sometime in the future, the events don’t feel that far removed from anything going on currently and the film takes its time setting up the world of the titular town, so that we get the greater sense of a community neglected, just like so many are throughout the world.
With an ambitious scope and a game cast, which also includes screen legend and Aquarius star Sônia Braga as the town doctor, Filho has straddled the line between arthouse and genre perfectly, firing another contentious shot on the social unrest of contemporary Brazil while he’s at it.
Bacurau is streaming as part of Kino Lorber’s Kino Marquee Virtual Theatre in conjunction with Toronto’s Fox Theatre.