Much of Kleber Mendonca Filho’s newest film Bacurau cleaves very close to its genre roots – specifically the Western. Bacurau is a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, so much so that it doesn’t appear on a map. Just this fact turns the town of Bacurau as the typical beleaguered village in many Western movies; a truck has to bring water into the town, which is later peppered with menacing bullet holes. At one point, there are even literally two important characters who come to scope out the town for their gang to later invade.
Yet Bacurau’s main purpose isn’t to merely repurpose a genre for modern times. Filho spends a significant amount of time exploring the unique culture of this little town. Many Western films do not necessarily humanize the ordinary people, yet we see this town has a unique culture cultivated in isolation, despite the whole town’s access to the Internet (which also gets cut off). Sonia Braga’s doctor character could have been a symbol of colonialism, yet she warns the townspeople about the mayor of the town, who lives in extravagance compared to the relative poverty of most of the townspeople. We actually see multiple townspeople figuring out that their town is being targeted by unknown forces and that they must work together to fight off the invaders.
Though one can easily decipher Filho’s political inclinations Bacurau, he is never didactic and his message is complex and nuanced. Filho carefully lays down the groundwork of Bacurau with the surety of an artist who is well-aware of the tradition that he is part of, yet these elements do not overwhelm the film. When the movie starts gearing up for its exciting, dramatic climax, it does not feel like a traditional action movie in which characters are enacting revenge for predictable reasons. Rather, it feels like characters trying to preserve a lifestyle in the most brutally simple (yet viscerally satisfying) way possible. Even when a resolution is reached, it is a dubious one at best, since we realize that this town is fighting against forces that can’t be reduced to just one malevolent group of people.
Kleber Mendonca Filho, perhaps Brazil’s most well-known director outside of his country, has never been shy in sharing his political worldview. Even in his acclaimed previous feature Aquarius, he explores the life of Sonia Braga’s character, a music critic who lingers in her apartment complex even as it scheduled to be demolished, and portrays her as a quiet yet irritable bastion against the inevitable march of progress and modernization. Filho and his crew famously used Aquarius’ premiere at Cannes to protest the impeachment of President Dilma Roussef, whose successful removal would make way for the right-wing regime of Jair Bolsonaro.
Thematically, though both Aquarius and Bacurau make an interesting double feature, the films could not be more different on the surface. Aquarius is reflective and quiet while Bacurau is bold and stylish; Aquarius is about an individual against the bureaucratic collective while Bacurau is about the collective versus the entitled elite. Yet both films are equally incisive about Brazilian society (at different times), and we can see a very distinctive and complex portrait of that country through his works. If Filho isn’t already Brazil’s most important filmmaker, then he is clearly on his way there.