Bacurau (2020)

One of the major benefits of genre filmmaking is that you can repeat & mutate stories audiences have seen hundreds of times before and still make them freshly exciting. In its most basic terms, the Brazilian whatsit Bacurau is a delicately surreal sci-fi take on “The Most Dangerous Game”, a short story that has been reshaped into countless genre films as wide ranging in tone & purpose as Hard Target, The Hunt, The Pest, and Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity. Bacurau is so deliberately disorienting in its own psychedelic mutation of “The Most Dangerous Game”, however, that it’s not until well into its runtime that you even recognize that’s what it’s going for, despite the story’s cultural familiarity. It’s a film that’s so gradually, subtly escalated that you don’t notice how truly batshit its central scenario is until you’re deep in the thick of it. Yet, it incorporates trashier genre filmmaking signifiers like screen-wipe transitions, extreme split-diopter framing, 1950s UFOs, and the casting of Udo Kier as its central villain so as not to lose its traditional action movie cred while pursuing its more artsy-fartsy ambitions. This is a film that uses familiar tropes & techniques to tell a story we’ve all heard before in a new style & context that achieves something freshly exciting with those antique building blocks. In other words, it’s genre filmmaking at its finest.

The title Bacurau refers to a fictional small town in near-future Brazil, “a few years from now.” The town begins the film in mourning, having lost its community leader & matriarch to old age. Then, the town descends into full on crisis mode as it is mysteriously erased from all online maps of Brazil and is surveilled by retro UFO-shaped drones. The film delays allowing its audience any solid footing for as long as it can, deliberately bewildering us in the first act to mimic the mental state of the Bacurau citizenry. Once the hunting-humans-for-sport aspect of its plot emerges from the confusion, however, the crisis only becomes exponentially more intriguing & thrilling. Like all great genre films, Bacuaru deploys its familiar plot template to address something intimately specific & fresh in metaphor that its premise has not been applied to before (not to my knowledge, anyway). This small Brazilian community is literally hunted from all sides by outside capitalists who see them as subhuman: gun-crazy American tourists, wealthy São Paulino elitists from the opposite end of the country, and even their own local government. It’s a literalized exaggeration of the kinds of exploitation that strains nearly all low-income POC communities no matter how remote, which only makes the exaggerated ultraviolence of the town’s bloody revenge on their oppressors all the more satisfying once it inevitably arrives.

If there’s any clear message being communicated in Bacurau, it’s to be found in the film’s emphasis on community & solidarity. Part of the reason it’s so difficult to get your footing in the first act is that the film has no clear protagonist. Each member of the community is allowed their own command of the film’s POV in time, and it’s the way they equally value each other’s contributions to the town’s daily survival (from doctor to musician to sex worker) that eventually sees them through what looks like an impossible crisis. Meanwhile, the racist, capitalist scum who seek to destroy the people of Bacurau for frivolous entertainment end up destroying each other in the process instead, as their selfishness & individualism makes them too weak to function. There’s a lot to praise in the way the film reshapes its “Most Dangerous Game” inspiration source to make it freshly exciting in both its aesthetics & politics. If nothing else, it has a low-key hallucinatory effect in its matter-of-fact handling of surreal circumstances that I can only compare to other recent South American films of a similar political bent: Monos, Zama, Icaros, Good Manners, Electric Swan, etc. It’s the focus on communal solidarity and de-emphasis of the individual that really distinguishes the film as something freshly exciting for me, though, especially considering the action genre’s long history of Lone Muscle Man hero worship.

Bacurau traffics in such familiar tones & thematic territories that it takes a while to fully register just how overwhelmingly odd it is in its distinguishing details. It’s clearly one of the stranger new releases I’ve seen so far this year, but I don’t know that I fully realized that until I was fully immersed in its climactic bloodbath. This is genre cinema alchemy, the kind of bizarro outlier that reminds us why repeating these stories in new, evolving contexts is a worthwhile practice in the first place.

-Brandon Ledet

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