Notes on Bacurau


(versão em português aqui)

(there’s gonna be a bit of dictacticism for foreigners here, so sorry for those well-versed on Brazilian culture, this can be a dictactic film so I’m just following suit)

— Let’s talk about needle drops. Bacarau opens with Gal Costa’s version of Caetano Veloso’s Não Identificado and ends with Geraldo Vandre’s Requiem para Matraga. Both of those are well known 60s songs and both are identified with well-known 60s movies, the former with Walter Lima Jr’s science fiction musical allegory Brazil Year 2000 and the later with Roberto Santos’ social western A Hora e a Vez de Augusto Matraga. Those are polar opposite movies identified with Cinema Novo as much so as the tropicalist group associated with Costa and Veloso (as well as Gilberto Gil who did most of the Brazil Year 2000 score) and Vandré, one of those Latin American social protest singer/songwriters who mostly regarded the early group and their interest in foreign popular art as sellouts. Both movies and both songs are intriguing openers about Bacurau because the movie often operates around both registers. It has a strong sense of pop allegory and much like the tropicalists it takes quite a few notes from Oswald de Andrades notions of cultural anthropophagy. It also feels very grounded in its fictional village time and place and has a desire to describe it and its people (worth noticing that most of the extras are drawn from the local population of the small village of Barra where Bacurau was shot). The desire to package those in political observation that is very clear and pointed. So a lot of the surfaces and operations feel closer to Veloso and a lot of the meanings to Vandre (I’m simplflying here, but I hope it makes sense, let’s say that talking about “the people” sounds far more like Vandre than Caetano’s MO), it is an uneasy marriage, but an often interesting one.

— One other thing worth pointing out: both Brasil Year 2000 and A Hora e a Vez de Augusto Matraga are fictions about the horrors of Brazilian development and so is Bacurau.

— Those references to Cinema Novo are very intentional and Bacurau often suggests 60s Brazilian political cinema after a heavy dose of genre muscle makeover. Particular through Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’ aggressive dynamic scope framing. Speaking of Cinema Novo, Pacote is a character very reminescent of a certain type that moves between many groups that were recurring in the movement’s movies and that scholar Jean-Claude Bernardet in his seminal study Brasil em Tempo de Cinema identified as a stand-in for urban middle class.

— Bacurau itself is rich drawn and the first hour has a strong sense of texture around the place. There is a lot of strands of Brazilian fiction on small northeast towns that inform Bacurau’s imagination, but it doesn’t feel particular derivative of neither. How the local society is organized is more vague outside of answering to a closer larger town mayor. I do like how what we get in terms of local leadership is divided between the teacher and the doctor.

— Curious that the movie stops to mention that the local church is long closed as the complete abscence of religion is one of the details that inform Bacurau as more of an allegorical than realist space.

— The portrait of the locals is loving if not very individualized. Most of the time Mendonça Filho and Dornelles prefer large group shots and there isn’t much time to get deeper into anyone life.  Bacurau has its fare share of mythifying about Northeast villagers that is a long tradition of Brazilian left-leaning fiction. On this, it is a big contrast for the far more specific middle uppers class milleus of Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius. It does seem devoid of the bouts of aristrocatic privilege on the margins of those movies and their point of views. One can also argue the film is only interested in a community portrait and it is very succesful at that.

— For all the positivity, there’s always an undercurrent of tension to the community. Braga’s doctor making a big show in the matriarch’s funeral sets a tone that is never fully dispersed. There’s also a good deal of paranoia, justified as the plot dictates, but reinforces the sensation that not everything here is well. There’s a strong sense of societal breakdown. We are “a few years on the future” and while the film never gives that much info about it, the sense one gets is that it is some form of dystopia (not that current Brazil isn’t one).

— There’s a lot of desire to link this movie to Bolsonaro government, but that can feel limiting. As Mendonça Filho has mentioned he and Dornelles start discussing it in 2009 and the film was in the can by the time of last year’s elections. And there’s details that point out how its society ills are larger. For instance, the crooked mayor is identified with the party of former president Michel Temer, a party known for its lack of ideology and willing to adapted to whatever the current political winds suggest. A lot of the problems suggested by Bacurau’s description would’ve been similar if the filmmakers had made this in 2012. That said, the sense of society breakdown and the increasing malaise turn into violence certain are very 2019 Brazil and Bolsonaro is the evil result of a lot of the symptoms the movie observes. In very Hobermian terms, this movie directed itself and is a good account of Brazil moving towards a precipice.

— On this, it is interesting to notice the development role of violence between the three Mendonça Filho’s films. Neighboring Sounds is a pressure cooker narrative whose long history of Braziling violence is sublimated through architecture and well-placed historical observations with the promise of a return that is just outside the frame. Aquarius makes the violence more present inside the image, but it remains mostly symbolic and as Brazilian critic Inacio Araujo observed it is structured like a western right down to a final shootout without actual guns. The actual guns are on full display on Bacurau whose violence is not sublimated or symbolic. People’s heads get blown-up.

— Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius had a tendency towards very demonstrative dialogue with plenty of one-liners whose political meaning is didactic. There’s little of that in the far more practical Bacurau, for all its genre trappings most of the moments between people feel more lived-in. The exceptions are the big scene with Braga speech after the mayor’s first appearance and a good deal of the scenes between the foreigners.

— Another key difference to Mendonça Filho early films is that those get a lot of milleage out of his control of space. Architecural movies with a strong sense of dramatic space. Bacurau following its western influences is an outdoor film, making good use of landscape (the scenes in the outskirts of the town have some nice skies). It remains a very controled and sometimes space full of tight scope framing, but a diferent dynamic.

— Poor Juliano Dornelles is the forgotten man in our cruel auterist dominated world. I’ve only seen another Dornelles movie, the short Mens Sana in Corpore Sana with its strong intimations of body horror. It is an useful reference point towards Bacurau approach and it is more precise violence and movement from architecture to the body seem very indebt to him. This is a more visceral less allegorical film than the two Kleber Mendonça Filho signed alone and it seems to me clear his co-director here has a strong hand in those changes.

— One of Bacurau’s more interesting contributions is ressurecting the figure of the social bandit. It is a very recurring presence in Latin American fiction, but it is not something that is frequent in 21st century Latin American cinema. Lunga, the social bandit very well played by Silvero Pereira, is mostly discussed for the first hour and dominates most of the back half, but he is the film breakout star and has been all over Brazilian social media (at least the more left-leaning side of it) and a clear problem for the more centrist readings. His presence breaks any attempt of reconcile the social pact.

— The museum keeps getting mentioned and when we finally get inside it, its main function seem to be positioning Bacurau as part of the cangaço cycle. That makes both Lunga and most of the film’s violence placed in a larger historical tapestry. It is easy to wonder given the suggestion of political power outside helping the foreign invaders, if there’s some specific interest in Bacurau and the hunter’s bloodlust are just an useful political tool. Much like Aquarius, Bacurau is a western about a land dispute.

— Bacurau is clever divided in two halves with the first major scene with the hunters as a breaking point. The point of view changes after that, Barbara Colen’s Teresa, the one returning home, mostly functions as our grounded pov until that point, but not after when things often seen by the outsiders’ view and Lunga dominates the action inside the town. Tone changes from description to action and the horror overtones becomes far more overt. Call the first half the cinema novo half and the later the Carpenter one (not that the oppositions are so simple).

— The hunters’ scenes are fascinating in how they are otherized in most of the same ways American/European cinema can often do with foreign bodies. A lot of generic brushes, full of the same variations on violence and entitlement. They are dull presences, just cannon fodder to be slaughtered when time comes. Same is true of the couple of “sudestinos” and I do wonder if Bacurau wouldn’t be more political pointed if the invasion had come from inside Brazil instead of the easier foreign one, but then that would certainly be a more divisive movie. The hunters function better as figures of establishment allowed to finally have their bloodlust complete.

— Kier gets a slight different treatment for everyone of the others, more iconic and symbolic, less of a disposable body. Kier as usual remains an offbeat and unpredictable presence whose creepy manace is always better when like here it has a point. It is curious to observe his need to control throughout the movie. Bacurau uses the old Most Dangerous Game scenario, but while that premise has always been about power (and often money), Kier’s master of cerimonies perceives power in a form of domination over the town. Everyone else just want to kill some “savages”, but he wants the city contained and in fear. The back half of Bacurau isn’t only about a failed invasion, but about Kier’s slow lost of control. I thought often about Paulo Leminski’s wonderful novel Catatau, about what would’ve happened if Rene Decartes had come to Brazil when the Dutch invaded Mendonça and Dornelles’ Pernambuco and his logical mind got lost on the tropics. Kier performance embodies some of same doomed “civilized” logic that ends on hysteria. Bacurau is the tale of how the preparations of a foreign invasion goes wrong through a sense of community and clever reappropriation of the staging of a trap that is turned on itself. Kier throughout the second half acts like a film diretor preparing his big action shoot, I thought a lot about Clint Eastwood playing John Huston in White Hunter, Black Heart.

— Oswald de Andrade’s notion of cultural anthropophagy (essentially how the third world artist can eat his first world influences and through artistic cannibalism move past an imperialist relationship with it) are central to how Bacurau deglutes 70s exploitation cinema for its own political uses. Carpenter is obvious the main reference point, one of his compositions is used in the score, the joke reference about a João Carpinteiro school is repeated from Neighboring Sounds and his sense of framing has always been a key aesthetic reference point for Mendonça Filho (and are not far away from Mens Sana in Corpore Sana). But Bacurau seem to point in more general terms for that era low tier genre movies and their notion of violence and breakdown of civilization under a context when “civilized” is a far more fluid term. Bacurau weaponizes those movies sense of menace and makes their anarchy subtext the text. There’s no sense that Bacurau is a peaceful place before the hunters anymore than Brazil was ten years ago. The specific notion of violence on those exploitation movies become a valuable tool to reimagine Brazil’s larger history of violence particular when it comes to how it exploits the northeast region and its population.

— Bacurau as a whole wants to bring many opposites closer, Vandre and the tropicalists, community and violence, a tradition of social conscious cinema and “irresponsible” genre thrills. It is not an easy balance and it is more uneven than either Neighboring Sounds or Aquarius. Its politics are unreconcilied, but its aesthethics want to placate many fathers. It wants to make a compendium of images of revolt and find ways they can serve a larger panorama of current Brazil and its injustices. There’s been some attempts (including by Mendonça Filho) of making a connection between Bacurau and Parasite, but while both explode into violence, the Brazilian film is less private in its uses, Bacurau, a community that already seemed to function by itself, even seem to go full anarchist after its taste of violence. It doesn’t closes on itself like the South Korean film, but it can still only go so far as a promise of more struggles ahead. The film stages the fall of pretenses of a functional society, but what you do after the people have become radicalized?

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