Cannes 2019: Bacurau Review
Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho has stated that his latest effort is a very different beast to his previous acclaimed effort, 2016’s Aquarius - but if you look past the surprising B-movie style of his new film, Bacurau, it’s surprising just how much is similar.
His excellent previous film told the story of Clara (played by Sonia Braga), an ageing woman who refused to give up her apartment after the building was bought by developers eager to kick her out at all costs. Teaming up with co-director Juliano Dornelles, his latest is a sprawling ensemble piece, dealing with the residents of a remote village in Eastern Brazil who have had to contend with local politicians cutting off their water supply, and an unspoken conflict that has stopped them entering any neighbouring areas. His films stand up for those who are being suppressed by forces aiming to go unseen, an anti-establishment theme that works just as well in his previous character drama as it does in this ambitious genre tale.
It’s a time of mourning in the village of Bacurau, as the 94-year-old matriarch of the village has passed away. But soon, strange things start happening; the town disappears from the country’s map, residents lose all phone reception, and the mayor who cut off the town’s water seems eager to get back in their good books, donating vaccines, food, books for the library - and coffins. Mysterious tourists from outside of the town start appearing, despite a blockade due to political instability in the region, and the body count slowly starts piling up. The town is under siege, and nobody is quite sure as to why.
Bacurau is announced as being set “a few years from now”, but only feels like science fiction in how it uses a not too distant future to wax lyrical about the issues of the present. Originally conceived in 2009, Bacarau has only grown more timely in an era of political instability in Brazil, where years of corrupt governments have given way to the rise of a far right president eager for the authorities to use whatever force necessary to stop crime. Comparisons could be made to Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales in its sprawling, often surrealist indictments of how power and warfare corrupt, although Filho's film feels less messy once the individual narrative strands coalesce into one bloody whole.
There is no faulting Filho and Dornelles’ ambitions, but after the intimate highs of Aquarius, Bacarau can’t help but feel disappointing in comparison. The film keeps its cards close to its chest for the majority of the running time, teasing out why the town is increasingly under siege and removed from the map in manners designed to draw different political interpretations. It could be as easily read as an indictment on President Bolsonaro’s plans to remove indigenous people from their homes for corporate profit, or even on American foreign policy, with trigger happy soldiers on hand to watch over the town for unspecified reasons. But when the reasons are revealed, the film transforms into something closer to a third act you’d see in a Tarantino film - it’s exciting in the moment, but can’t help but feel like a let down when thinking it over afterwards. The film’s mystique is eventually revealed to be nothing more than a cover for what is a midnight movie through and through.