In some imprecise, not-so-distant future, a young woman, Teresa (Bárbara Colen) is driven along a dusty, unpaved road flanked by scrubland and distant hills. Via a tanker delivering precious water, she is returning to Bacurau, the remote Brazilian village she grew up in, for the funeral of her grandmother. There’s been a crash on the road up ahead: the body of a motorcyclist is crumpled on the ground, the bike discarded on its side. With a jolt of dark humour, we realise he has fatally collided with a lorry carrying stacks upon stacks of flimsy-looking coffins.
The spectre (and eventually spectacle) of death looms over Bacurau (“night owl” in Portuguese), from this nightmarishly strange opening to its mercilessly blood-splattered final act. But this weird Western meets anti-capitalist sci-fi horror is ultimately far more concerned with notions of legacy, both constructive and destructive, rather than simply the cheap (but effective) thrill of an exploding head.
The shockingly sudden death of the motorcyclist is immediately juxtaposed with the ceremony of Teresa’s grandmother’s funeral. Seemingly a beloved local fixture as the whole village has turned out to pay their respects, there is one dissenting voice: Domingas, the doctor (Sônia Braga), who drunkenly shouts that she was an evil old witch. Certainly some strange phenomena starts to occur in the wake of the revered old lady’s death. Horses come galloping through the street at night, somebody shoots holes in their water tanker, and the village itself has suddenly vanished from every digital map. Thankfully, as teacher and librarian Plinio (Wilson Rabelo) points out, their home can’t be erased from the map they drew themselves.
And herein lies Bacurau’s central message: what do we leave behind? The nature of the threat to their way of life reveals itself via some truly bizarre set pieces, including a menacing drone that looks exactly like a 1950s flying saucer, and thus the Bacurau-ans come together to fight for their very existence on their own land against imperialist outsiders. Grappling with racism and postcolonial identity, every character seems to be struggling with their own past and sense of belonging. Bacurau’s small museum is a pivotal location, underscoring how this community must write its own history to have any chance of survival.
What stands in the way of Bacurau achieving true greatness is co-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ lack of interest in character. A growling Udo Kier is a wonderfully icy villain, and while any viewer with half a heart will root for the villagers to defend their home against their invaders, the film juggles multiple leading characters but doesn’t much care to flesh any of them out beyond their labels of doctor, teacher, criminal. Teresa almost drops out of the story entirely until the film’s final minutes. This might be a boldly anti-Hollywood approach that emphasises community over the individual, but it means the film lacks the emotional resonance that ought to make it a knockout.
A hypnotic genre mash-up that seems to have sprung fully-formed from a heady dose of psychedelic drugs and heat haze, Bacurau is a compelling if rather detached exploration of the history we inherit, and the history we pass on.
Bacurau is showing now on mubi UK