The first half of Bacurau plays almost like a travel ad for a certain type of tourist. The titular village, a close-knit but economically disadvantaged community deep in Brazil’s wild Northwestern region, is the type of socialist paradise that armchair revolutionaries like to speak misty-eyed about over cheap red wine. It’s a place where no one has much, but everyone shares what they have, and all contribute according to their abilities. All types of bodies an desires are celebrated without shame. The corrupt politician (Thardelly Lima) who cynically rolls into town bearing ripped-up books and expired food is met with jeers and curses. News is passed around via walkie-talkies, and authority is split between a handful of elders — including the town’s lone doctor, Domingas (Sônia Braga), who also keeps loving watch over Bacurau’s small but thriving sex trade. Opening with a life-affirming farewell for another elder and proceeding at the unhurried pace of life in the sunbaked sticks, it’s a charming, laid-back ensemble drama documenting an endangered way of life — until it becomes something else entirely.
Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and his past production designer Juliano Dornelles, Bacurau can go to into some truly unhinged genre fusion territory, and although the first sign that the film will go in some very strange directions indeed comes when the town disappears from Google Maps right in the middle of geography lesson, the film’s own internal sense of geography is clear and strong. But although the town’s small enough to be laid out on a paper map in just a few rows of modest houses, the village has its secrets — as does the film, which parcels out dystopian sci-fi story details bit by bit before blossoming into an action bloodbath of a finale. In a film that runs just over two hours, this approach may alienate views looking for a more straightforward genre experience. But the revolutionary catharsis of the film’s climactic showdown is righteously inspired, even if the film’s engine breaks down every once and again along the way.
Bacurau‘s radical shift into genre is marked by the arrival of B-movie icon Udo Kier halfway through the film, humorously cast as a German-American businessman leading a group of heavily armed tourists. It’s easy to imagine the same wannabe warriors who insist on carrying assault rifles into a Walmart buying in to Michael’s (Kier) sales pitch of a package tour to Brazil to hunt the most dangerous game, guilt-free — bottled water and air-conditioned transport back to basecamp after living their war-crime fantasies included. As one tells the group in an unnervingly chipper tone as they march through the brush, “God’s given [him] the opportunity” to take out his homicidal hatred of his ex-wife on some people who in his mind, don’t matter. As a statement of American entitlement and the intersection between capitalism and colonial terror, it’s a frying pan to the back of the skull: clunky but powerful.
Not unlike Mad Max: Fury Road with its desert wasteland, Filho and Dornelles cleverly navigate the Brazilian terrain, giving depth and shape to the lush territory. A world apart from the urbane locals of Filho’s previous films Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius, Bacurau is nonetheless pretty well shot by cinematographer Pedro Sotero, with vibrant colors and hot whites selling the tropical climate. The nighttime sequences are just as stylized, with the harsh flashlights and concurrent lens flares. Which also helps Bacurau slip into unexpected madness and violence that bring to mind not just John Carpenter, whose music the filmmakers sample in a key moment, but also of the early, tables-turning revenge thrillers of Wes Craven.
Yet there’s still a clunkiness that actually marks Bacurau as an unforgettable oddity rather than a great genre film in its own right: The anger and energy behind the film are focused, but the tone can be shaky. There are a lot of ideas packed into this movie, as well as a lot of characters, a lot of musical cues, and a lot of winking wipe transitions. And Filho and Dornelles often pause to chase cinematic butterflies, like an extended scene where children test each others’ bravery that we know is building to some sort of shocking climax, but is in no rush to get there. While the story is genuinely surprising and unique once it gets where it’s going, the diversions along the way make Bacurau more headily smart than viscerally tense, even in that gory, ferociously rebellious backstretch. Still, there’s a lot to be said for the film’s closing baptizing rage and its sense of mischief, of which both qualities bring Bacurau some simple pleasures. A steady brew of surprises and unique energy, Bacurau can be rich and filling but also clunky and uneven, still ultimately leaving you in a headspace of the strange and intellectually exciting.