First published in BFI on October 4, 2019.
Kleber Mendonça Filho’s genre-bending third feature Bacurau, co-directed with his longtime production designer Juliano Dornelles, draws from a wide range of inspirations: the history of the Brazilian Sertão, the Vietnam war, 70s Hollywood movies.
But the film’s Black Mirror-esque premise of western tourists hunting Brazilian villagers for sport – and of the villagers fighting back in grand, gory style – emerged from an unlikely setting: a film festival.
In 2009, Filho and Dornelles presented their sci-fi mockumentary short, Cold Tropics, at a festival, where they ended up watching several ethno-documentaries.
“Some of them were all right, some were well-meaning. But we just couldn’t take the way they looked at ‘simple’ people – the other – from far away places,” Filho told me during a conversation at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “That’s how Bacurau began. We thought we would write a film about great people from far away places.”
This emphasis on the act of looking – on how movies shape the perception and social position of the marginalised – sets Bacurau apart from the two features Filho has made in the intervening years. Both grapple with the lopsided socio-economic relations of contemporary Brazil: 2012’s Neighboring Sounds is a gradually twisting drama about the wealthy residents of a seaside apartment complex and their servants; in 2015’s Aquarius, a middle-aged woman (played by Brazilian legend Sonia Braga, who appears in a wonderfully eccentric cameo in Bacurau) stands up against corporate developers who want to tear down her historic home. Departing from the social realism of these films, the self-reflexive, pastiche-heavy Bacurau takes on the tropes of classic Hollywood westerns and thrillers – and turns them upside down.
“I think it’s basically the same film over and over again,” Filho said of his three features. “They are all under siege. But this one of course, is very clearly a siege film – it’s almost like cowboys and Indians, except the cowboys are the Indians, and the Indians are the cowboys.”
These subversions are rooted in actual history. The fictional village of Bacurau, set in the hinterlands of Brazil’s arid north-east, is based on a quilombo: a settlement (and site of resistance) formed by escaped African slaves in the 1600s. But the film updates the traditional quilombo to a more eclectic community of outcasts. Bacurau is made up of white, indigenous, and black people; gay and trans folks; doctors, prostitutes, teachers, pansexual gangsters, and even a bard.
“We’re dealing with archetypes, because we’re doing a genre film about a village that resists,” said Dornelles. “We talked about Asterix, the comic book series a lot – that’s where the bard comes from. But of course, we needed to be very honest with the representation of that kind of place, so we also used a lot of people from nearby villages. They understood the story that we were wanting to tell. It was like they knew that type of situation.”
“We found amazing people who had never been to a movie theatre,” added Filho. “One of the guys who ended up in the film makes a living digging wells and finding water. He uses a stick shaped like a Y, and he also has an iPhone. That weird mix was fascinating for us.”
Part of the pleasure of Bacurau is to see the villagers use that mix of tradition and tactical sophistication to outwit the westerners. In the first half of the film, which unfolds like a sci-fi thriller, the tourists send a UFO-shaped drone to recon the village, shoot up Bacurau’s water-tank with machine guns, and wipe out the power in the area with a snazzy device. But their military-grade gadgetry is no match for the grit and resourcefulness of the Bacurauans, who draw from their long history of rebellion and resilience for their bloody response – literally using the weapons hung on the walls of the village museum.
“That comes from, for example, what happened to the Soviets in Afghanistan in 1980, or the United States in Vietnam,” said Filho. “There are many moments in the script when we felt the film was a war film, not a western. It really has the psychology of a war film.”
A line in the film makes this connection explicit. When two of the western tourists come across a row of bloodied clothes hung out to dry at the outskirts of Bacurau, they exclaim, “Fucking savages!” – a direct reference to Apocalypse Now (1979).
“That’s from Robert Duvall’s Captain Kilgore, when he decides he wants to surf,” Filho said. “But there’s a problem, there’s a village on this wonderful beach. So what does he do? He takes 20 helicopters and bombs the shit out of the village. Then there’s a reaction, a ground-to-air missile from the Viet Cong, and it hits a helicopter. And Kilgore says, ‘Fucking savages.’ And he’s the one attacking the village!”
Bacurau invokes several other Hollywood movies, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The village school is named after ‘João Carpinteira’, aka John Carpenter, whose original composition, ‘Night’, is used in a key scene, while the film’s pulp aesthetic – CinemaScope photography, split diopter shots, vintage dissolves and wipes – recalls thrillers and exploitation films from the 70s and 80s.
“We are cinephiles, and we love American films” said Dornelles. But Bacurau’s references to American cinema go beyond mere homage – they’re deployed towards a sharp, parodic critique of American culture and policy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the casting of Udo Kier as the proto-Nazi leader of the western mercenaries, who proudly proclaims his immigrant roots in America.
According to Filho and Dornelles, Kier’s character was inspired by Die Hard (1988). “Look at Alan Rickman’s character. ‘Hans Gruber.’ Come on! Hans Gruber?!,” Filho laughed. “He’s a very interesting character, you can’t take your eyes off him. But Hans Gruber? He doesn’t even speak German, and he’s [supposed to be] German. So [I thought], yeah, we can do the same in this film.”
Another character in Bacurau, almost caricaturish, is a gun-crazy American who talks about wanting to shoot up a mall after being divorced by his wife. “We thought that it would be fair to have these American characters,” said Filho. “Especially when you look at the history of American cinema, the way it has represented other cultures is very problematic.”
But Dornelles added that he doesn’t see the film as anti-American. “I think it’s anti-gun culture, more than anything else. They are not only Americans – there are Russians, a British guy. The main issue is that they’re white men from the northern hemisphere.”
The film’s underlying narrative of corrupt officials selling their people out to western capitalists hits even harder in Brazil, where the mere existence of the film feels like a political statement. The country’s right-wing government, led by president Jair Bolsonaro, dissolved its Ministry of Culture in January and recently froze all funding for ANCINE, the national film-TV agency. The state has also personally targeted the politically outspoken Filho, demanding that he return the state funds used in the production of Neighboring Sounds seven years ago.
Nevertheless, Bacurau has enjoyed great success at the box office – especially in Brazil’s north-east, where the film is set. “I think the whole atmosphere is really feeding into the dystopian nature of the film, and people are recognising it. The film establishes a very strong dialogue with reality,” Filho said.
One of the key moments in the film has proved eerily prescient. During a geography lesson, the local schoolteacher realises that Bacurau has suddenly disappeared from the online map. “We have a digital life and we have our physical life. Bacurau, of course, continues to exist physically, and when [the teacher] pulls down the paper map [in the classroom], they’re still there. But to the outside world, they have become extinct. I find it a very scary and cynical idea, which happens all the time in the world today.”
Strangely enough, months after Filho and Dornelles had shot that scene, it became a reality in Brazil.
“In March, we were going to France for post-production, and a friend sends us a link to a newspaper, where [it says] the government decided to erase this grid within a protected Brazilian indigenous area. That was the beginning of the crisis that we are seeing now with the burning of the Amazon.”
“It happens almost every week that some moments in the film, some scene, becomes a mirror image of what is happening in current affairs. We have the museum in the film, and we have our National Museum that, one year ago, burned down. We have many such examples.”
But Filho cautioned against reading Bacurau “like a news piece” on Brazil. “It’s not,” he said. “It’s cinema.”