Cannes Film Review: ‘Bacurau’

Veering hard into genre cinema, Kleber Mendonça Filho and co-director Juliano Dornelles use a grisly human safari in the Brazilian northeast to expose the country's complex problems.

A bloody Brazilian riff on “The Most Dangerous Game,” the sinews of which are girded with so many allusions to local culture and politics, “Bacurau” is that rare movie that probably would have been better if it had been dumber, or at least less ambitious. Set in the sertão — or inland outback that occupies the country’s northeast corner — “Bacurau” slowly builds to the standoff between the residents of a matriarchal village and a group of wealthy American visitors, led by Udo Kier, who’ve arranged to hunt them for sport. These white outsiders see themselves as superior, but with the help of a psychotropic drug found in the desert, the people put up more of a fight than these sickos expected.

As premises go, this human-poaching scenario promises excitement galore, though co-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and longtime collaborator Juliano Dornelles overthink it, delivering a visually impressive but unevenly paced thriller that feels as if it’s meant to be analyzed more than enjoyed, and for which footnotes might actually have done more good than subtitles. Though shot in striking anamorphic widescreen and laced with references to John Carpenter, Sergio Leone and the like, “Bacurau” doesn’t quite work in traditional genre-movie terms. Rather, it demands the extra labor of unpacking its densely multilayered subtext to appreciate.

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Look up Bacurau on Google Maps, and you won’t find it. There’s a good reason for that: Mendonça and Dornelles invented the town to serve the ultra-cynical political allegory they had in mind (one can imagine people describing a “Bacurau situation” if and when any of the filmmakers’ grim predictions come to pass in the wider world), showing roughly where they imagine Bacurau to be via an elaborate CG opening shot from space. Foreign audiences don’t often get to see this part of the country, which featured in such Brazilian breakouts as “Barren Lives” and “Central Station” but has otherwise been ignored in favor of the country’s more modern metropolises.

“Bacurau” claims to take place “a few years from now” but hardly feels futuristic, owing to the fact that in the sertão, some communities still don’t have running water or electricity, and this particular town has had its limited progress reversed by a corrupt mayor, Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima), who dammed the clean water supply. Even more alarming, early on, the village teacher discovers that Bacurau has been erased from all maps. It’s one of those “The Matrix”-esque moments — in which plebian characters come to understand that those in control have virtually unchecked power — that really ought to send a chill through audiences.

But for all his skills as a director, Mendonça hasn’t quite mastered tension. He and Dornelles (who art-directed Mendonça’s two previous features, “Aquarius” and “Neighboring Sounds,” stepping up his involvement here) demonstrate a strong aptitude for atmosphere and composition, and yet, their characters feel barely sketched, depending far too heavily on the personas of the actors who play them.

A few early signs point to the significance of a young woman, Teresa (Bárbara Colen), returning to Bacurau for her mother’s funeral, where the town’s drunken doctor, Domingas (Sonia Braga), causes a scene. During Teresa’s approach, gunfire can be heard in the distance, but vague references to “troubles” in the region, plus the surreal early sight of a fatal traffic accident involving a truck loaded with coffins, make it tricky to imagine the massacre unspooling off-screen. Since the filmmakers have chosen to focus on these two women over such action, we might reasonably expect either one to emerge as the film’s heroine, though the movie never really picks a central character.

Instead, the residents collectively respond to more evidence of gunfire when the truck responsible for bringing water to Bacurau arrives perforated with bullet holes, spilling this precious resource into the desert soil. So far, they have not put together the ominous detail about their community being erased from maps (suggesting no one from the outside will come to their rescue) with the recent interruptions to their cell phone service, and why should they? The looming threat is truly horrific, and has absolutely no precedent in their experience — even if a scene in which the corrupt mayor stops through town suggests how little some of Brazil’s leaders care about their constituents.

And then the movie turns proactively sinister, revealing the aftermath of those earlier gunshots: Five corpses (including a child’s) lie rotting in and around a hacienda, and two unlucky locals naively add themselves to the fast-climbing body count. Turns out — and this detail surely means something to the directors — it was two big-city visitors from São Paulo who did the killing, and who have brokered the deal by which all of Bacurau’s residents are to become target practice for a group of ruthless American tourists.

Add to that a flying saucer that might be a drone (or vice versa), and “Bacurau” swiftly enters the realm of the surreal — an almost Buñuelian science-fiction thriller, shot to look like a spaghetti Western, complete with weird zooms, arbitrary crane tricks, and horizontal wipes. (The early scene with the truck full of coffins recalls Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars,” in which Clint Eastwood’s character anticipates the violence to come by ordering the mortician to build three pine boxes.) Until this point, “Bacurau” has focused mostly on the townspeople, but now the script turns its attention to Kier’s character — less deranged than so many of the actor’s perambulations into tough genre territory — who’s overseeing this twisted safari.

There’s an old screenwriting trick that says an easy way to distinguish the heroes from the villains in tales of ambiguous morality is that bad guys argue amongst themselves, while good guys get along. That principle applies to the scenes in which the movie’s evil (white) hunters sit around the table, riling one another up in advance of the hunt, although their performances are uneven, and Mendonça and Dornelles haven’t figured out how to create that hair-bristling anticipation of imminent violence that comes so naturally to someone like Quentin Tarantino.

Instead, these angry dialogue scenes sort of sit there, making the English-language actors look amateurish — with the exception of Kier, who’s constantly doing something unexpected with his character. He nails one exchange in particular, challenging the cliché of being called a “Nazi” by one of the other hunters. That moment is a clue to the way “Bacurau” sets out to challenge certain Brazilian-cinema stereotypes, although some of these subversions may be lost on foreign audiences — as with the character of Lunga (Silvero Pereira), who has been falsely labeled as an outlaw when we meet him but must become a savage killer in order to survive.