Let’s spare the fluff. Out of the gate, it’s hard to describe Bacurau in a concise manner. It’s many things working in tandem to create something of a hybrid that the world has never seen before. A ton of filmmaking influences from all over the world on display here, from Saïd Ben Saïd’s trademark productions of narrative extremity to the cinema verité style of Brazilian filmmaking à la City of God to the hyper-violence of an American blockbuster. There’s enough to give any unsuspecting viewer whiplash if they’re not completely sold on what they’re in for because there is so much going on in Bacurau at any given time. It’s a truly unique experience of a film.
The only issue is that none of Bacurau works in the long run.
Set in the near future, the world is a functioning, yet far more dystopian, society than it is today, as if the trajectory of the world’s chaos snowballed. Vast swaths of Brazil are without running water due to a cutoff from the corrupt politicians in the big cities hoarding resources for themselves. Meanwhile, bandits and killers roam the desert causing chaos and wreaking havoc on the civilians of the Serra Verde. Teresa (Bárbara Colen) returns to her small hometown village of Bacurau for her grandmother’s funeral, bringing brings water and medical supplies with her. She soon discovers the reality of rural life in a new Brazil. Danger from imperialist forces soon begins to descend on the area, looking to promote violence and chaos among the citizens of the eclectic and tight-knit town.
On paper, Bacurau sounds like an incredibly interesting film with a lot to say about the current state of both Brazilian and American societies, especially given their recent elections of Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump, respectively, both leaders with shades of authoritarian tendencies taking shape in their presidential offices. In reality, Bacurau is a tonal nightmare that has no idea what it wants to say at any given time and switches between what feels like three separate films with no connective tissue to make any of it feel even the slightest bit cohesive.
In one wheelhouse, we have a film about a woman’s journey returning to her roots following a political and societal fallout that has changed the fabric of her everyday life. These are the moments in Bacurau that actually work quite well. It’s a restrained and intimate look at the nuances of rural life and the struggles with coming home, all with a realistic sci-fi twist. This first act of Bacurau intrigued me, as it built a world that, while dystopic and dark, felt more similar to our chaotic society than I care to admit with comfort. Colen’s sympathetic portrayal of Teresa’s struggles to adjust to a revised version of her old life moved me in the film’s opening moments, and that is something about Bacurau that will stay with me.
The problem with this strong start is that the narrative throws it completely out of the window when it completely shifts gears to a hyper-violent exploitation film without any rhyme or reason. The choice to make this shift could make sense had the film taken the time to slowly introduce the tonal change to the audience in small increments, but what we have is a complete and utter hard shift to a totally new film, one that is without the nuance and substance that carried the film’s first act to relative success. The film goes from a dystopian twist on the “coming home” trope to that of a Battle Royale-esque class warfare film that loses all sense of subtlety in its storytelling, opting for a campy, pulpy exploitation vibe that devalues the initial point the film was hoping to make.
With that, we’re introduced to some new characters with some truly awful performances behind them, particularly with the English-language cast, who, despite their proficiency with the language, have such stiff deliveries that the film often feels like a badly dubbed spaghetti western. Udo Kier, who has proven he can be a powerful villain in past films, delivers a performance that feels like John Travolta (and I mean present-day Travolta, not Travolta in his prime) could’ve stepped into and it would’ve felt less hammy.
The introduction of the hyper-violent storyline of the second and third acts adds in a larger comment on American society’s gun culture and the proliferation of white nationalism under the age of Trump. Yet, introducing another parable on the by-products of diet authoritarianism within the Americas devalues the other, making both feel less profound in the long run. In the end, we get something that’s entirely unsure of what to say on either of the subjects its looking to comment on, despite having the utmost confidence that it’s making a profound statement on both. Being on the nose, unfortunately, doesn’t open you up to being insightful.
I’ll concede to Bacurau on a few fronts, though. The film, shot by Pedro Sotero, is very attractive to look at, utilizing the Brazilian countryside to great effect. There’s a great sense of scale with the film that often makes it feel more hopeless as the characters try to survive, if only on the visual front. One of the few good things to come from the film’s sharp turn into its exploitation is some very good sound mixing and editing. Gunshots, screams, explosions and chaos reign in the aural assault that is Bacurau’s final act, and, despite its complete ridiculousness, it’s objectively well-crafted technically.
Bacurau has a whisper of promise, a promise that is explored momentarily at the start of the film, but diverges into B-level schlock swiftly from which it never recovers. Schlock can be good in the right context, and had Bacurau run with it from the start, perhaps the flim could’ve been a good time. Instead, we have a film that takes itself far too seriously to be mindlessly enjoyable and far too campy to be sobering. The film knows what it wants to say, but has no idea how to go about saying it in any cohesive way. With that, no matter how much effort is put into making a film that’s technically sound with what should be fun, it’s wasted on deaf ears and blind eyes. Perhaps, it’s better that way.
Bacurau currently screening at a variety of film festivals. To find current screening information, head to the official Bacurau Kino Lorber website.
Final Score: 1.5 out of 5.