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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Film Review: Bacurau (2020)

In this genre-blending sci-fi/western, the ragtag inhabitants of a remote Brazilian village meet for the funeral of a 94-year-old matriarch – but no sooner is she in the earth than strange occurrences begin to escalate, intensifying towards a blood-soaked climax…

Trying to review Bacurau is a bit tricky, because to discuss the film’s many merits rather requires giving the game away.

That said, there’s a tiny moment about 40 minutes in that’s indicative.

It features a stubbly old man who is slowly riding his beaten-up motorised tricycle down a dirt road, towing a small wagon, the sun beating down, insects buzzing. He is flanked by scrub-land, and quite what he’s doing has no bearing on the plot whatever.

But then a small flying saucer hovers into view.

He notices it, doesn’t much react, and carries on his merry way.

The saucer flies off.

End of scene.

This bizarre, singular moment rather captures the spirit of a film that is stacked to the nines with amazing, hilarious, uncanny moments, and since watching it I have been thinking about it an awful lot.

Suffice to say the film is high-concept, albeit it shot in a 70s vérité style that makes it feel almost anthropological at first. To grasp at reference points, it is less pulpy than films like City of God or Amores Perros, and less earnest or nonchalant than the films of Pedro Almodóvar; less gleefully indulgent or esoterically fantastic than anything by Guillermo Del Toro or Alfonso Cuaron.

It perhaps has most in common with the classic 80s satire The God’s Must Be Crazy - and if you haven't seen that film then you definitely should.

Anyhow, part of what I’m saying here is that this is a foreign film very much about foreignness. It even starts off in space, between satellites, and zooms slowly down through the earth’s atmosphere to focus in on a truck on its way to Bacurau – a village out in the middle of nowhere in Brazil.

A place where roads are cut off by a local militia, and the river that always fed the village’s water supply has been dammed by local, blood-sucking politicians.

We soon meet the people of the village – teachers, children, prostitutes, farmers. There is a small museum, and a tired café-cum-bar. An old man plays the guitar, acting as the town's bard. Dogs scrabble about in the dirt of the main street. Paint is peeling, buildings falling apart, and the doctor, Domingas (played by the ever-amazing Sônia Braga) has an alcohol problem.

But Bacurau is full of all the hum, bustle and colour of life in the developing world. People love and hate one another. They know their neighbours. They like to get drunk, listen to music, take care of things, and indulge in psychotropic herbs from time-to-time.

There is, of course, a sense that Bacurau is a forgotten sort of place, and certainly the film leans into some Spaghetti Western tropes as time goes on. Yet, there is no Magnificent Seven here to save the border town (or a Seven Samurai, if you are a purist). Instead, there is a rich community of people – men, women, kids, transvestites, nudist shaman, and mullet-wearing revolutionaries, all of whom are scratching out a fairly happy existence.

Even if the town requires water to be brought in by tanker.

Or the phone signal is on the fritz.

Or the settlement has recently disappeared from GPS mapping services…

The key is in the film’s (and village’s) name, really. Bacurau means nightjar – a bird that sings its beautiful song just as night is coming on. And this is the crux of the matter of the film: this village, like so many villages, is heading towards its twilight. But as the night threatens to arrive, the population rallies, and what a song – what music!

If you watch the trailer for Bacurau then it does more or less explain the central idea, and the mid-film arrival of a character played by Udo Keir marks a major turning point. Keir is a sinister looking human being – he’s sort of the German Christopher Lee, and you will likely have seen him in dozens of movies.

In this one – light spoiler warning here – he is leading a human safari.

Writing much more about Bacurau is only going to detract from the experience of watching it, which is something I recommend you do – with the caveat that you need to like genre movies. There is a bit of Mad Max here, and lots of Sam Peckinpah, and even a bit of George Romero.

Indeed, when that flying saucer rocked up I hadn’t long since seen The Vast of Night and thought, “Well, what are the bloody odds…”

Anyway, in short, this film is bonkers, and sexy, and violent, and fun. It’s highly cineliterate, and is perhaps a little too clever for its own good, but I really enjoyed it.

Moreover, as an allegory for what is happening to Brazil under its current dictator, and much of the rest of the world as authoritarianism rises and swells, Bacurau is a shining exercise in irony.

Let’s just hope the real-world’s many disparate communities band together in similar fashions as the night comes in…

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