Kleber Mendonça Filho triumphed at Cannes in 2016 with the best movie of his career, "Aquarius." That film was led by a mesmerizing performance from Sonia Braga and dealt with his native Brazil being invaded by gentrification. Filho’s latest, "Bacurau," is a whole other beast, an exercise in B-movie trappings that feels a little too facile, at least on surface and when compared to Filho’s previous works, but deals heavily with forced-upon modernity on the Brazilian people. The bad guys are government-operated.
Led by a beautifully subtle performance from Barbara Colen, here is a film unafraid to please both arthouse and midnight crowds in equal measures. The result is confusing in tempo, but unique and compulsively watchable in a where-the-hell-will-it-take-me-next kind of nature.
Set “a few years from now” in the imagined town of Bacurau, the first half hour or so of the film sets up a place so unknown that the locals can’t even seem to pinpoint it on a map when trying to teach local kids where they come from, the film starts off steeped in magical surrealism as Teresa (Bárbara Colen) comes back to Bacurau to mourn the death of her grandmother. We immediately are alerted that Grandma was “special”—most likely involved in some kind of ritualistic magic, which the Bacurau locals make sure to perform as they lay her body to the ground. Accompanied by co-director and long-time collaborator Juliano Dornellem, Filhio’s screenplay has Teresa being given by her father an unidentified psychotropic, which seems to be the go-to drug for most of the village as well. As mourning comes to an end, Teresa stays for the journey as she and the village folk are swiftly caught up in a series of sudden and mysterious murders that have occurred within the community. Since this is a small village where every person seems to be interconnected with each other, the murders hit home.
We eventually learn that the ones committing these atrocities are an American-led coalition, quite possibly CIA, led by Udo Kier’s ex-German compatriot and his crew of 7 other gung-ho Americans hungry for blood. But why? What exactly do these pesky Americans want from Bacurau? We’re not entirely sure, even when the final credits roll, but the film makes parallels to Brazil’s past and present, a history filled with violence and colonialism, which presents “Bacurau” with political context, rather than just being viewed as genre fare by itself.
Once the Americans show up, we are in full-on B-movie mode. The body count piles up. The beheadings and rituals submerge the film into the grindhouse. To counterattack the American coalition, the townspeople convince Lunga, the prodigal son who left for a vicious life of crime, to come back to save his people. It thus turns into this incredibly invigorating revenge saga that, at times, feels empty rather than cathartic. I felt like I needed some popcorn to fully embrace this 134 minute ride.
The cast of characters that shadow this mysterious town of Bacurau could easily belong in a David Lynch movie’ Braga is, as usual, splendid as Domingas, an alcoholic local doctor there’s also the prostitute with a heart of gold, the dleirious pimp, a heavyset DJ and a local district’s sleazy visiting mayor, desperately in need of votes for re-election.
The problem with subverting our expectations at every turn, not to mention the vast array of characters to handle, is that you can easily slip into narrative incoherence with the mixture of genres at hand. That happens, from time to time, but not at the expense of consistently keeping our attentions glued to the screen. We are indeed hooked by what is transpiring, very much in the same way that, say, one would be by grindhouse fare such as "I Spit in Your Grave" and "Hostel." But, of course, the filmmaking in "Bacurau" is much more beautiful, not to mention artful, than those aforementioned titles. It sings with blossoming camerawork and the kind of spiritual elegance a token midnight-er would surely lack. [B/B+]