Bacurau review – weird western is a fascinating mess

Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho delivers a bold but frustrating genre film about a remote town fighting for its survival

Somewhere in a remote region of Brazil, in a place where few outsiders dare to venture, a young woman named Teresa (Bárbara Colen) returns home to attend the funeral of her grandmother. Along the way, she passes coffins, scattered in the road. Quickly she learns of the strange events that have been plaguing the community in recent months. The water has been cut off, and why is the town no longer appearing on the map? Meanwhile, high in the sky, a UFO hovers. Welcome to Bacurau.

It’s tough not to admire a film that shows so little concern for narrative convention, genre, or logic, even when said film doesn’t quite pull it off. Bacurau, the latest picture from renowned Brazilian filmmaker Kleber Mendonça Filho, co-writing and directing alongside Juliano Dornelles, is very much its own thing, for better or worse, by turns frustrating and exhilarating. As an uncompromising vision you can’t fault it; whether it’s worth the time it takes to sit through (132 minutes, if you’re wondering) is another matter entirely.

Split into two unevenly distinct halves, Bacurau first hones in on the residents of this backwater town, defined by their community spirit and general dismay for corrupt authorities. We get to know the inhabitants, from hardened doctor Domingas (Sônia Braga), to Pacote (Thomas Aquino), a born leader who has a romantic history with Teresa. And whilst most films tend to present an idea of what they’re about early on, allowing you to find your way into the story, more than an hour into Bacurau you’re still likely to be wondering what exactly it is you’re watching, or where it’s going.

Many reviews have been vigilante in concealing the film’s late-stage “secrets,” which I don’t think are quite as outlandish or unexpected as many critics have suggested. Let’s just say that it soon becomes apparent that there is a bloody kind of game afoot – one not so different from Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” in which humans are hunted for sport. The film’s second half – which introduces Udo Kier as a sadistic hunter – is unashamedly spun from the films of John Carpenter (glimpse his Portuguese name equivalent plastered on a sign), though I’d argue nothing here gets close to the brilliance of his Assault on Precinct 13.

Bacurau clearly has a lot to say, but whether it does a good job of saying those things will likely depend on how you take to its “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. With its sights set on themes of colonialism and political corruption, this is clearly a movie about Brazil, past and present, and also about the country’s relationship with the rest of the world. But what it’s saying on a more specific level isn’t made particularly clear or apparent to viewers outside of this ecosystem, and for many there will be a sense of a film going a bit over your head. A case of lost in translation, perhaps?

For the politically unfamiliar (AKA western audiences), the real thrill of Bacurau can be found in its constant shifting of tones and genres, the way it unravels as though unafraid to throw out the rulebook. So we get a disorientating but beautifully shot film that’s part political drama, part horror, and a whole lotta western. At times it feels like a documentary, or even a telenovela. Later, a schlocky B-movie. And there are sci-fi elements, too, suggesting this is a story of the not-too-distant future.

The hectic mishmash of ideas is not entirely satisfying, and the bloody denouement doesn’t quite redeem an admittedly slow build-up. There’s a fine line between messy and inspired; Bacurau falls somewhere in-between. Yet I sense that just like the town of the title, this is a film that will refuse to be scrubbed from the map. Cult fandom awaits.

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