For Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho, Bacurau is a step down from Filho’s masterful Aquarius and a middling political epic that doesn’t fully land.
In 2016, Kleber Mendonça Filho impressed the Croisette with Aquarius, a socio-political film about the beautiful resilience of Brazilian people in the face of tyranny, injustice and fraud. With Bacurau, a co-directed film with Dornelles, Filho stays on the political but veers into genre with mixed results.
Bacurau is a small Brazilian town that’s underserved and far away from major cities. After the death of the town’s community leader, an elderly woman deeply beloved and respected, the town suddenly disappears from the map, as if its longtime protector has abandoned it. Soon after, the mayor, who is running for a new term, visits the town asking residents to vote. They all refuse since he had shut down the nearby dam, causing residents to suffer serious water shortage issues. Their determination to sabotage his campaign kicks off a retaliation plan that unfolds in surprising and often gory ways.
Despite being full of color, ambition and memorable sequences, Bacurau never quite lands due to a muddled script that wants to be a political commentary but fails to be accessible enough for it be a wholesome viewing experience. Several references are left unexplained, and a key plot device in the film feels too convoluted and changes the tone of the film. What starts as a political commentary on the resilience of Brazilian communities and their stand against exploitation and colonization soon turns out as a gory, gunfight conventional fare. The brilliance of Filho’s previous outing, Aquarius, was its ability to expertly juggle the political and the narrative, to weave in the characters in a symbolic context without sacrificing character development. Bacurau falls short in this department. For a large portion of the film, non-Brazilian viewers will mostly wonder what’s actually happening on screen – only to then discover what Filho and Dornelles were attempting to do with this cat-and-mouse approach.
It works less than it doesn’t – not only because the film can’t quite find its voice between trying to be reflective and maintaining a thrilling, entertaining and sometimes comedic tone, but also because at some point the film feels empty. It’s as if there is a point to be established but it takes too long for it to be made clear to non-Brazilian viewers unfamiliar with the history or behind-the-scenes struggle that the filmmakers seem concerned with. Because the film’s narrative deliberately hides part of the plot, particularly the motivation behind the film’s cat-and-mouse chase, a large portion of the film ends up being just that, verging on being meaningless rather than reflective. Such crucial flaw was not present in Aquarius for instance, because of a much more balanced, nuanced and well-developed script.
Despite the flaws, the film still manages to be visually immersive and engaging on a performance level. It’s particularly worthy of note that most of the actors in the film are non-professionals, and it’s quite the feat for the filmmakers to have been able to draw such naturalistic performances from talented but inexperienced actors who were able to convey the agony of living on the margins of a society that’s willing to devour the weak just to achieve political gains. Technical credits are very solid, particularly a colorful, lush cinematography that brilliantly captures the stunning beauty of Brazilian landscape. Some shots are wonderful to look at, and the transition between underground tunnels, old houses and aerial footage is quite outstanding. Sound design is also top-notch.