Like Parasite, Knives Out and The Platform, Brazilian quasi-Western Bacurau uses genre constructs for social commentary
In films like Bacurau, we get messages about society’s class structures, and the most interesting thing is that these films aren’t structured like “message movies”.
There’s a killer on the loose. He has cohorts. Gun in hand, he begins to talk to them. “So right after my divorce, I kinda lost my mind, y’know? One day, I went home and I packed my Glock and my Mac-10 and all the ammo I had in a backpack and drove straight to my ex-wife’s house and I beat on the fucking door. Because I was going to shoot her when she fucking answered, y’know? But she didn’t answer. She’d left town. But still, this feeling… I wanted to get it off my chest, y’know? So I drove to the fucking mall, twice. And I drove over to Bay Breeze Park. But each time, I couldn’t do it, y’know?” He points to the sky. “Something was telling me not to. Now, God’s given me the opportunity to deal with that pain here.”
“Here” is Bacurau. That’s the name of the place, which the press notes describe as “a small settlement in Brazil’s remote backcountry”. And that’s the name of the movie, too. It’s set in the near future (“a few years from now”) and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles. There are a few reasons I want to talk about Bacurau now. One, it co-won the Jury Prize — with Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables — at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
The event looks iffy this year, and though the pandemic is undoubtedly Priority No 1, the prospect of the world's biggest film festival not taking place is a big blow to the filmmaking (and film-viewing, and film-tracking) community. There might have been a young filmmaker waiting to show how he or she has changed the grammar of cinema. He or she will have to… wait some more.
Two, the ghastly speech by the killer reminded me of the Nova Scotia tragedy, which is being called the worst shooting in Canada’s modern history. “Families grieve as police search for motive for mass shooting in Canada” says a headline as I write this piece. The motive, in Bacurau, is… Well, read that speech again. Why does this killer want to massacre the residents of the titular town? Why do his companions wish to do the same thing? After all, there’s no ancient enmity. There’s no reason for revenge (say, “you stole our groundwater and killed our crops” or whatever would make for a showdown in a Western, which this film closely resembles).
There’s nothing — except a metaphor. Or maybe we should say... metaphors. For starters, that gun-toting American killer is a stereotype from the country where gun-toting killers run amuck. The directors said this was a sort of a revenge on American cinema, which has always represented other cultures in a very problematic way. In the British Film Institute magazine, Devika Girish wrote that the film’s underlying narrative of corrupt officials selling their people out to western capitalists hits even harder in Brazil, whose right-wing government is led by president Jair Bolsonaro.
The politician in Bacurau is much-hated, and at the end — no major spoiler here — he is mounted on a donkey and dispatched into the desert. Someone says: “May he find there the inner peace he sorely needs, among the cactuses, thornbushes, mandacaru, favela and xique-xique. All those bushes waiting to give him a spiky hug. Spinner of lies, natural-born asshole. He brought pain and suffering to our community. Today, we in Bacurau say goodbye to this demon.” You can only imagine how much like wish-fulfilment this scene must have seemed to liberals — but you don’t have to read Bacurau as being Brazil-specific.
It’s human-specific. It’s about armies that have historically invaded the helpless. It’s about resistance movements. It’s about the question: Who’s the savage? For the whites (the killers), the natives are the savages, with their quaint, off-the-grid customs and civilisation. (The place does not even appear on satellite maps.) But what are the white people if not savages themselves, with utter contempt for these people “beneath” them? Sounds somewhat like Knives Out? Somewhat like Parasite? Somewhat like The Platform, the Spanish sci-fi horror-thriller film now on Netflix?
That’s the main reason I felt like talking about Bacurau. In all these films, we get messages about society’s class structures, and the most interesting thing is that these films aren’t structured like “message movies”. It may be too early to call it a trend, but throw in the sensationally effective Get Out, and you have films that use very traditional genre constructs (on the surface, as mentioned earlier, Bacurau is a Western) for social commentary. This is not new, of course.
At the dawn of the atomic/nuclear age, many American sci-fi films were allegories for something larger. Heck, good old Godzilla himself was conceived as a metaphor for nuclear warfare.
So maybe we should say it’s a trend that’s coming back. One of my favourite scenes in Bacurau has two “tourists” (a man and a woman, who are part of the gang of killers) ride into the town on trail bikes and stop at a small convenience store. After some chit chat, one of them asks the proprietress if “Bacurau” means something. “It’s a bird”, comes the reply. “A small bird?” “No, it’s a fairly big bird.” There’s the sense that the outsiders are minimising the “idea” of this place, but to insiders, it’s as glorious as it’s always been. The tourist says, “I see. Extinct (bird), I guess?” The reply: “Not here. Only comes out at night. A hunter.” Translation: You’ll never really know a place if you’re just visiting.
Another favourite scene involves a shaman-like person, who waters his plants in a greenhouse before disappearing into his home next door. Two killers — a second man-woman pair — lie in wait. To them, the man is not “civilised”. He wears no clothes. He seems to make medicines the “old” way, using a mortar and pestle. “Why does he have to be so old?” the man whispers to the woman. “I like it,” she replies. What follows is a Tarantino-esque bloodbath that’s one of the most amazing explosions of gore I’ve seen outside of a Tarantino movie. That’s what’s special about these films: they say serious things, but they don’t take themselves seriously.
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).
All images from Twitter.
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