TIFF Review: Bacurau (Mendonça Filho & Dornelles, 2019)

Kleber Mendonça Filho is one of the most exciting filmmakers working today—and Bacurau is only his third feature. Despite his minimal output thus far, I do believe I’m right in saying so. His debut, Neighboring Sounds, is a remarkably lived-in tapestry of a working-class neighbourhood in the grips of a heatwave, while Aquarius is a decade-spanning rumination on gentrification and female resilience. Both films are excellent for their provocative content and emotional sensitivity. With Bacurau, he now adds an entertaining genre hybrid to his arsenal, and one that fits snugly in his filmography for being yet another colonial invasion film. While Neighboring Sounds made private security a most sinister presence, and Aquarius exposed the callousness of greedy developers, Bacurau is perhaps his most direct attack against his country’s colonial past, set as it is in the Brazilian sertão and featuring a small indigenous town that is being targeted by a large group of Caucasian bounty hunters. The invaders are now point-blank evildoers who are not masquerading as anything other than bloodthirsty thrill seekers (in one memorable scene, two of them proceed to have sex after violently shooting down a car trying to escape Bacurau, showing us the full extent of their moral depravity). Of course, there is an ulterior motive for their actions, which further implicates the dark corruption of local governments; however, it is best that I don’t give anything else away, for you’d want to go into the final act knowing as little as possible.

In the past, one of the only things I could criticize Mendonça Filho for was overindulging on length. He has yet to make a film under two hours, and while Bacurau really does fly by when it gets going, there are still pockets where some of the momentum deflates. Several others have criticized the dryness of the first act, which is tonally and textually separated from the genre-bending of the last act. Here, though, I must offer slight disagreement, for I think it is essential that Mendonça Filho contextualize Bacurau however he can, be it geographically, politically, historically, culturally, or socioeconomically. The funeral that opens the film is, I think, the perfect way to get this contextualization started, for not only does it give us a quick summation of Bacurau’s residents and traditions, but we become emotionally invested in this faraway town’s unique milieu. In another scene, for instance, a villager enters the local clinic and asks the doctor (a fabulous Sônia Braga) whether he can nap on one of the beds, because his wife had kicked him out after a fight. It’s this kind of careful world-building that Mendonça Filho has come to master over the span of these three films, Bacurau being the one where it comes together with the most exhilarating of payoffs.

There is so much else to commend: the well-calibrated sound design that heightens tension without overwhelming the action, as well as the brutal way our Westernized systems of entertainment are pointed right back at us, now as methods of defiance and self-defense against violent exploitation. It could perhaps be called righteous appropriation, taking tools of imposition and turning them into weapons of reclamation. And what Mendonça Filho really seems to understand here is that it’s such a productive form of catharsis. We are not sidling away from the theatre merely feeling content at seeing villainy overcome—we can actively digest why it’s done this way, as well as the kinds of precedents a film can set for those that will follow.

Star_rating_4_of_5

Bacurau received its North American premiere at TIFF in the Contemporary World Cinema programme on September 7, 2019.

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