At the end of each year, former President Barack Obama shares a list of his favorite movies and TV shows. On the 2020 film list are such popular titles as Mank, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Nomadland, and Let Him Go. His list also included a few less touted films, such as the Brazilian feature Bacurau, written and directed by Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles. Being that this man of taste liked Bacurau, and being that it has been highly rated and awarded, I decided to give it a try.
From the very start, the Bacurau screenplay provided an innovative way into a story. The film is spoken in Portuguese and English, with Portuguese subtitles. The introductory title informs us that what we are about to see takes place a few years from now. The location is a remote village in Brazil called Bacurau. The first images are of a rusty potable water truck heading down rural roads to that village. The truck driver has a passenger, and it turns out that she is on her way to the funeral of her grandmother Carmelita, the 94-year-old matriarch of the village.
Very little of this film follows formula, so the funeral is offbeat. The procession includes a van with bright lights and video, as well as the more expected singing village mourners. The pre-procession features one of the two stars of the movie, Sonia Braga, as Bacurau’s doctor and sometimes drunk, as she yells hateful slurs to the corpse.
Soon the plot shifts to the desperate state of the village and its inhabitants. They lack proper food, meds, and drinking water. They have a self-centered little pig of a mayor. Strange things are beginning to occur. The village disappears from all maps. Farmers are shot to death. The bravest local men are in a secure hiding place.
The plot isn’t easy to follow at first, not from any lack of knowhow on the part of the filmmakers. In fact, the structure is creative. The viewer is introduced to a mysterious group of American mercenaries in the area, led by the other star of the film, longtime cult film actor Udo Kier. These seemingly immoral opportunists make use of a drone and wear tiny earpieces to communicate. At this point, in this sandy wasteland just outside the village, Bacurau begins to take the shape of a spaghetti Western, ala Sergio Leone. And as with spaghetti Westerns, this is not a film for those who avoid gore. There’s plenty of blood. And this is not a film for those who need to have every plotline sewn up by the time the end credits roll.
Bacurau is available from Kino Lorber for home viewing on disc with many extras. It also is streamable from Amazon Prime and other sources. This is a film that is way to the side of my usual cinematic choices. If the former President hadn’t list it, I may never have seen it. I’m glad I did. In this current pandemic where we spend so much time at home, we tend to become deeply engrossed in our favorite genres and specific shows. I, for instance, live in an unending world of old British TV and my favorite detective shows. In the past few weeks, I saw all 125 episodes of Monk. One of my friends has seen all available episodes of What’s My Line? (1950-67), hundreds of episodes, and there are 800 episodes in total!
Bacurau took me to a whole new world of viewing. As I watched, I felt as though I were traveling on an unknown planet, a bracing feeling since I can’t even travel to visit friends in New York City, Vermont, or Maine. That’s how odd this film is. At a moment when I spend so much time sitting in my home, where my surroundings are more than familiar, it’s quite a stimulating experience to move outside my viewing comfort zone.
Another much praised, award-winning feature by Kleber Mendonca Filho is Aquarius from 2016, also starring Sonia Braga, about a woman who refuses to sell her waterfront condo to a construction company. It, too, is available for home viewing.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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