Saturday 14 March 2020

Our town: "Bacurau"

The Brazilian writer-director Kleber Mendonça Filho's international breakthrough films - 2012's Neighboring Sounds and 2016's Aquarius - were shaded studies of community, unusually alert to atmosphere and place, exactly the kind of thing to which highbrow critics are supposed to respond. Bacurau, which Filho has co-directed with Juliano Dornelles, is something else entirely. The new film carries over that keen interest in community, apparently provoked by its makers' desire to take a troupe of pro and non-pro actors out into the sticks, away from the clutches of the Bolsonaro regime, so as to establish a new model of civilisation. (Dornelles has previously served as Filho's production designer; here, he's promoted to architect-in-chief.) Yet that interest has been shifted sideways into potentially more commercial genre territory. Bacurau has the wipe cuts of a Star Wars movie; the framing of dystopian sci-fi (opening with an "a few years from now..." caption); and a Western's battlelines and shootouts. It's a film that wants to stir the pot, and the blood.

The disputed territory of the title, cut off from the rest of Brazil by verdant hills, is a little like a Latin Brigadoon or perhaps Liverpool, an independent state more open to self-governance than outside influence. It has a doctor (Sonia Braga, held over from Aquarius), a teacher, its own buoying pharmaceuticals, unisex sex workers, a resident DJ, even a troubadour who spends the long, hot afternoons sat on his porch plucking at his guitar. It's not an idyll - it doesn't display all that much in the way of material wealth, and the medico is a bit of a liability when sloshed - but they have one another's backs. (An early, telling scene: a canvassing politico pulls up in the village with a truckful of bribes, and not a single soul cares to come out of their home to receive him.) This being a variant of the modern world, however, you'd be right to wonder how long this community can maintain this independence; and you'd be right to worry when the reliably terrifying Udo Kier bursts into shot an hour in as the head of a multinational cabal of mercenaries looking to take something away from the natives.

What follows is a slowburn, to say the least. As in Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius, there were points where I found myself wondering just when Filho was finally planning on cutting to the chase the film seems to be headed towards. (Our antagonists are introduced in a long, variably acted scene around a table that takes ten minutes to establish what a B-movie Western would make clear in two or three minutes tops.) To some degree, the delaying here is tactical: Filho wants us to inhabit this space, work out who's who, and how everybody relates to one another. The encroachment isn't some explosively hostile takeover, rather - as it has been elsewhere - a gradual, barely perceptible creep. Two motorcyclists (done up as passing tourists) are sent out to test the locals' pliability; the community is put under surveillance; and - just ahead of the final push - access to the mobile phone and electricity networks is suddenly, dramatically cut. Anybody looking on from the East - anyone familiar with the situation in Kashmir in particular - will find eerie parallels with reality.

Yet the relaxed pacing also allows Filho and Dornelles time to fold in eccentricities. The locals' efforts to recruit the ruthless bandit Lunga (Silvero Pereira) to their cause - a pivotal plot point in the context of this power struggle - are afforded roughly the same amount of screen time as a capoeira demonstration and a spot of naked gardening. The point is that these latter are the kinds of liberties a people can only take when they're left to go their own way; they're the localised quirks that get suppressed or blanded out under more controlling forces, and exactly what makes Bacurau a Brazilian Western, as opposed to any other variety of the form. Consequently, you can see why the film has been claimed - first at Cannes, then on the festival circuit - as a prime auteur text, a defiant statement of independence from someone who means and needs it. In fact, Bacurau equally arrives as Filho's most accessible film yet: MUBI are paying it the honour of showcasing it in upmarket arthouses, but you could easily imagine another distributor using alternative poster art to reposition the movie as a shoot-'em-up for viewers prepared to wait two hours for a bloodbath. In that broadening of appeal, Filho sacrifices some of the depth and thoughtful texture of his earlier films, but Bacurau operates on the same gut level as a rallying cry, urging onlookers to its slaughter to resist - resist! - by any means necessary.

Bacurau is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and MUBI.

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