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“Bacurau” is a razor-edged sociopolitical riff on the neo-Western

Online viewings of Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s film through Kino Marquee will benefit UW Cinematheque. Info

Originally scheduled to screen on March 27 during UW-Cinematheque’s annual collaborative series with UW-Madison’s Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies (LACIS) program, Bacurau is now available as part of Kino Marquee, a virtual cinema recently established in the wake of COVID-19 closures. Paid online viewings of the film raise money for Cinematheque, which has cancelled the remainder of its spring season in light of the pandemic. Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s 2019 effort pairs well with another recent feature that kicked off the aforementioned series, Gabriel Mascaro’s Divine Love (2019), just about a week before the widespread effects of COVID. Both films absurdly envision a near-future Brazil under spiritual and literal siege. If Divine Love offers an urban religious satire, Bacurau is more of a sociopolitical one situated in the sertão (or backcountry)—fearlessly ever-evolving in tone and riffing on the spaghetti western as much as wartime thriller and meta-comedy.

In all its stylistic meandering, Bacurau begins with an alluringly strange premonition, as the camera swoops down from satellites above the earth to a pothole-filled road where a water tanker swerves by an overturned flatbed truck carrying empty caskets. “If You Go, Go In Peace,” a highway sign reads, demarcating the titular town, as Erivaldo (Rubens Santos) and Teresa (Bárbara Colen) make their way through to deliver the community’s lifeblood as well as medical vaccines. In Bacurau, mourners are readying a funeral procession their for matriarchal spirit guide, Carmelita (Lia de Itamaracá), eulogizing her through dusty streets with a rendition of Sérgio Ricardo’s “Bichos da noite.” Until this point, the film seems to simply stand as a diverse community portrait with a dramatic cultural angle. But, as Carmelita’s own son, schoolteacher Plinio (Wilson Rabelo), discovers their humble village seems to have vanished off virtual maps from the Serra Verde region, Bacurau immediately begins to aim its sights on something far more sinister and scathing.

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Cut to the career criminal mayor Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima), who rolls into Bacurau to buy the residents’ favor after holding their water supply ransom for his own political ends. The film suddenly teases a supernatural intervention with an unidentified flying object careening overhead, which comically triggers the reveal of the Barucau’s most tellurian and corrupt adversaries—a shadowy militia group holed up on the edge of town. They’re planning a colonizing invasion at the counsel of expatriate Michael (Udo Kier). Co-directors Dornelles and Filho approach these scenes with a mordant humor, as this band of sadistically incompetent white Americans and Eastern Europeans struggle to even articulate their own bloodlust. The tone recalls the final seasons of Breaking Bad, not only in the similarly picturesque arid landscapes but for one particular character dynamic that emerges, as their infighting surges to further obscure the necessity and course of their so-called mission.

Ultimately, to reveal more would be to deny the thrill of Bacurau‘s prevailing theme of vengeance against the oppressors. Admittedly, at times the film does struggle to juggle its multitude of competing threads and tie them together coherently, not to mention interlace the seemingly random interjections. But in return for its structural messiness, the film dabbles in a thrilling experiment and broad anti-imperialist message, one that touches upon works as far and wide as Black God White Devil (1964), Pure Blood (1982), Empty Metal (2018), and the most recent and critically well-known Monos (2019). Within the loose framework of a contemporary western, Bacurau establishes an eccentrically multifaceted narrative of the marginalized rising to the occasion to face fascist threats and tyranny with razor-edged aplomb.

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