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-[Film Reviews]-, Latin American Cinema

‘Bacurau’ (2019): When Weirdness Meets Western

Directed by: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles || Produced by: Emilie Lesclaux, Saïd Ben Saïd, Michel Merkt 

Screenplay by: Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles || Starring: Sânia Braga, Udo Kier, Bárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Silvero Pereira, Karine Teles

Music by: Mateus Alves, Tomaz Alves Souza || Cinematography: Pedro Sotero || Edited by: Eduardo Serrano || Country: Brazil, France || Language: Portuguese

Running Time: 132 minutes

What do you get when you combine Adam Wingard’s The Guest (2014), a middling Spaghetti western, and The Most Dangerous Game (1924)? You might produce a bizarre, incoherent film like Bacurau, a 2019 “weird western” (yes, that’s an actual subgenre of western filmmaking) that competed for the Palm d’Or at that year’s Cannes Film Festival and halfheartedly blends more genres than your typical 1990s-2000s Bollywood melodrama. Written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles and set in the semi-arid sertão region of northeastern Brazil, also the setting for the Netflix Original western, O Matador (2019), Bacurau uses its natural backdrop to inform its story, characterizations, and themes far better than its actual screenplay and oddball direction. Most films classified as “strange,” “absurdist,” “nutty,” etc. by general audiences I’m willing to give a chance (e.g. Birdman [2014], Edgar Wright’s Three Flavours Cornetto [2004, 2007, 2013] trilogy), if not outright respect (e.g. Dr. Strangelove [1964]), given how weirdness in the arts is often associated with greater creative freedom by auteurs and the absence of played out, mainstream, committee-groupthink storytelling tropes. Like any cinephile, however, I have my limits (e.g. Everything, Everywhere, All at Once [2022], The Lobster [2015], Synecdoche, New York [2008], Brazil [1985]), as weirdness by itself means little without quality execution, and may come across as obnoxious, self-important, or downright desperate when paired with a slow, plodding narrative.

Top: In a shot that recalls the early scenes of Tremors (1990), the movie welcomes viewers to its titular setting with a polite warning. Bottom: Visitors soon arrive to Bacurau with drone technology (far left) and firearms, but not in peace.

That’s what we have here with Filho’s latest feature, along with a side helping of clunky, awkward political commentary that confuses more than it entertains. The film details the modest yet idyllic lifestyles of the eponymous fictional rural town, whose townsfolk are forgettable and their arcs, nonexistent, even when a small group of murderous American (US citizen) psychopaths descend upon their village to hunt the locals for sport. Despite some tense moments early on and the pleasant outdoor photography, the latter of which wouldn’t be out of place in a Discovery Channel nature program, Bacurau wastes its scenic backdrop, an otherwise gnarly premise, and over two hours of my time.

With regards to its screenplay, Bacurau skewers both its overall narrative structure and its bloated cast on a story that unfolds in fits and starts and, most bafflingly of all, lacks a protagonist to guide the viewers through this weird, tonally inconsistent diegesis. A minority of films can work with nontraditional screenplays without main characters (e.g. Shin Godzilla [2016], Babel [2006], Cube [1997], Pulp Fiction [1994]), but most types of stories require them and fall on their face without a firm narrative point of view (e.g. The Phantom Menace [1999]). Bacurau doesn’t impress with its vague ensemble of dull but well acted sertão villagers and dull, poorly acted American antagonists, all of whom share about equal screentime yet whose personalities are interchangeable. The only performance that makes any impact is the venerable German character actor, Udo Kier, who’s stuck with amateurish, cringeworthy dialogue like the rest of the English-speaking cast. How do you waste a villainous Great White Hunter of humans role for that man?

Direction-wise, Bacurau is almost as inconsistent but just as perfunctory. I don’t care how many dolly tracks the crew laid for this movie’s tracking shots, because they don’t change how stilted and lifeless the camerawork feels when combined with the haphazard blocking and unclear scene geography. Any sequence with gunfire feels flat, with no sense of pacing or escalation to the violence. Earlier 1st Act sequences that establish everyday life in the titular village fare somewhat better, recalling various interchangeable yet decent-looking social issues dramas favored at various international film festivals. Once the fantastical, alternative reality elements creep into the main narrative, however, Filho and Dornelles’ lack of experience in genre filmmaking grows more apparent. You can use all the old-school zooms, wipes, and split-focus diopters you want — they do nothing to create the memorable characters or cinematic violence that drive a story forward.

Apparently Portuguese-language westerns set in the Brazilian sertão are not for me, as evidenced by my reaction to both this and O Matador. The only worthwhile content you get from this movie is the vague, incoherent sociopolitical themes that will fly over the head of most Gringos like yours truly, or perhaps even most non-Brazilians. The cartoony hunters are too awkward and one-dimensional to entertain, and the lack of a charismatic heroic cast, spearheaded by the aforementioned lack of any sort of audience-surrogate, limit the emotional resonance of whatever the hell Filho and Dornelles were trying to say with this picture. Filho previously directed the subtle political drama, Neighboring Sounds (2012, Portuguese = “O Som ao Redor”), as well as the well received Aquarius (2016), so the man can shoot polemical topics without tripping over his feet. Given the movie’s overwhelming critical reception, maybe this movie is just too smart for me, or maybe, just maybe… this is yet another overrated absurdist drama that cinephiles have way overthought.

Left: The funeral of the village matriarch acts as the inciting incident for this wacky western hybrid, but I’m not sure why. Right: Udo Kier lends his signature stage presence to an enigmatic role that should’ve been written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Unfocused cinematographically and incoherent at its storytelling fundamentals, Bacurau jettisons sellout mainstream concepts like protagonists, character arcs, or dynamic, fluid camerawork to produce a film that feels as dated as the Spaghetti westerns it references. At least old-school, overdubbed Italian films had main characters.

However… variations on The Most Dangerous Game on film will always catch most viewers’ attention even if their execution leaves much to be desired. The sertão landscapes look pretty.

—> NOT RECOMMENDED; just rewatch a Sergio Leone western (e.g. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly [1966], Once Upon a Time in the West [1968], etc.) instead.

? If Udo Kier was going to commit suicide, why did he care about getting captured, being held at gunpoint, and confronting the town mayor?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


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