What’s Coming to Them
by Nicholas Russell
Dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Brazil, Kino Lorber
“People should either be caressed or crushed. If you do them minor damage they will get their revenge; but if you cripple them there is nothing they can do. If you need to injure someone, do it in such a way that you do not have to fear their vengeance.” —Machiavelli, The Prince
Revenge thrillers are simple affairs on the surface. Who is seeking violent justice and why? Through what methods? Still, a dilemma of the genre arises in the parsing of subtext. Perhaps, most critically, what is the revenging party’s success or failure supposed to signify? And how does this affect the audience’s enjoyment? These are heady questions for ostensibly facile films that often promise plentiful bloodshed, viscera, and, in some cases, broad political statements about the oppressed and underrepresented. Bacurau seems to care less about these questions than about who is asking them. Directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles (who previously served as production designer on Aquarius, Mendonça’s brilliant, incisive 2016 class drama) place their focus squarely on a group of people whose circumstances transform revenge from a potentially selfish and single-minded endeavor to that of collective, necessary survival.
Set “a few years from now,” the film immediately suspends its audience within a miasma of possibility, panning over from a sea of stars, past a floating satellite, down into the northeastern deserts of Brazil where a water truck makes its way down a road lined with coffins. One of the passengers is Teresa (Bárbara Colen), a native of the eponymous town returning home to attend the funeral of its matriarch, Carmelita. Bacurau has been recently cut off from its water supply by a corrupt politician, and its inhabitants are low on resources though, notably, not on morale. The town is sparse, comprising a closed church used for storage, a school named after one João Carpinteiro (John Carpenter in Portuguese), a brothel on wheels, a museum of local history, and two rows of buildings between which lies the only road in or out of the town.
Its citizens are vibrant, compassionate, and riddled with flaws that are collectively acknowledged and accepted rather than exploited or ridiculed. There is the drunken doctor who spews profanities during Carmelita’s funeral (Sônia Braga in a role diametrically opposed to her performance as a wealthy retired journalist in Aquarius). There is a notorious outlaw whose violent exploits live on in cartoonish YouTube clips that circulate amongst the town’s children (Thomas Aquino). Meanwhile, a mythical freedom fighter named Lunga roams the countryside, wanted by the government for executing state police. All this before a tiny flying saucer descends. There is the thought that what will unfold next could be science fiction, disaster porn, or cautionary tale.
What Bacurau is, on the most superficial level, is a tapestry of influences and tropes in service of a different kind of revenge film, John Carpenter shout-out included. The most recognizable could be that of the western, all clear, sunny skies shining on glistening brown faces in a lonely town that is, to outsiders, seen as uninhabitable. While it’s still a struggle to situate genre within an American cinematic context of racism and the glorification of indigenous genocide, Bacurau utilizes its aesthetics to paint a sensuous, earthy picture of a self-sustaining mixed community that rejects capitalistic tendencies in favor of collectivism. History is prized over revitalization. The people of Bacurau are not simply country folk beset upon by ruthless outside forces; they are a coalition of individuals who know their land, respect what that land has given to them, and thus enthusiastically choose to defend it.
It’s also a political farce. Shortly after Teresa returns home, Bacurau’s local corrupt politician, Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima), passes through the town behind a small cavalcade of cars plastered with his face while a re-election jingle blares from the speakers. He brings a dumpster truck full of used books for the school, bags of expired food, cases of addictive drugs, offerings of penance for shutting off their water, tokens of promise for what his stay in power might bring. Before tires touch the main road, everyone in Bacurau disappears inside their homes. Tony Jr. appeals to his constituents on an empty street, bullhorn in hand, egg on his face. Some critics, notably Americans, have drawn comparisons between Tony Jr. and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, but the former is too young and bumbling to be a stand-in for a real political figure whose rhetoric and policies make President Donald Trump seem almost altruistic.
The inhabitants of Bacurau soon realize their town has been wiped off all satellite maps. Their water truck arrives riddled with bullet holes. In a dreamlike scene, a team of horses from the neighboring farm gallop through the street at night. Then two neon-clad strangers on dirt bikes arrive under false pretenses before suddenly murdering two civilians. A film both lush in its cinematography and kaleidoscopic in its characterization very quickly turns into something else. Udo Kier bursting through a door will do that. The German king of hamming it up leads a small group of American mercenaries whose presence begs as many questions as it answers. The little flying saucer turns out to be a surveillance drone, the two bikers local public servants in the mix for some fun. With Tony Jr. paid off and the town all but disappeared, Bacurau has effectively become a hunting ground.
And yet this potential for violence doesn’t become apparent until late in the film. The majority of Bacurau is a study in place, a desert landscape vast, colorful, and beautiful because of its danger, not despite it. The film is also a superb example of cinema’s unique ability to familiarize an audience with a medley of captivating faces over the course of two hours, from leading stars to background extras. If anything threatens to derail the film from its beguiling form and narrative, it’s the American caricatures, all white of course, who readily spout racist epithets and hedonistically indulge in violence to the point of sexual arousal. Not that such people do not exist, but that their two-dimensional portrayal, even in pulp, is too easy. Such construction is almost certainly intentional, a kind of winking reversal of the Indian “savage” regularly seen in westerns. Still, I keep wondering when filmmakers will land on an incisive depiction of white supremacy that doesn’t read as lazy or pandering, that doesn’t feel so belabored in its attempt to speak to “this moment.” Too, I wonder to what degree the filmmakers thought through the rhetoric of gun violence, which, in this case, is illustrated through the Americans’ espousing “real hunting” via the use of early 20th century firearms and topical arguments over which Brazilian ethnic groups are considered white, and therefore worthy of execution.
At the same time, there is something to be said for the degree to which caricature effectively highlights what can, at first, seem like unrealistic qualities. The divorced corrections officer who can’t let the murder of an innocent child go, with obvious echoes of conversations surrounding Trayvon Martin. The legacy-obsessed, gun-happy woman who seems to be proving her lack of femininity through violence. And Kier’s bemused, seemingly detached foreigner who nevertheless indulges his murderous impulses despite his sensitivity to what he calls “stupid clichés,” such as being called a Nazi.
The revenge aspect of the film, which only occurs in the final 30 minutes, conjures up a deeper kind of catharsis. Coming together around the murders of three of their own, the people of Bacurau, including the reclusive Lunga, don’t merely devise a plan of attack against all odds. They are in conversation with a legacy of militant liberation that is literally hanging on the walls of their local museum, newspaper clippings, and old photos alongside rifles and pistols. The violence in Bacurau has been described as Tarantino-esque by some critics. It is certainly outrageous. But Bacurau isn’t interested in an Inglourious Basterds style of emotional release. The film lingers in the moments after someone has been shot, over the grisly wounds they’ve sustained, and a sense of humanity is gained that keeps any given scene from achieving one-note satisfaction. It’s hard to imagine anyone feeling sated by the deaths of the Americans, spectacular and hilarious as they are. I felt more convinced by the small justice found afterwards, when Tony Jr. is sent off humiliated and alone into the desert, or when the last surviving member of the mercenaries is left to ponder his actions in an underground jail cell.
After, the town is allowed to return to its daily rhythms. There is no hint that what has just transpired will happen again. But Mendonça and Dornelles posit that this is a foregone conclusion, that what is inevitable isn’t necessarily political upheaval but social disruption because of politics divorced from the concerns of its citizens. Bacurau endures as peacefully as it can, still fighting for uninterrupted access to natural resources, still finding and creating opportunities for joy where possible, but always with a wary eye.