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TIFF 2019: Bacurau

A film laden with such rich fictional imagery that it feels anything but fake
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Bacurau is a 2019 Brazilian mid-western film. Courtesy of Tiff | IMAGE HAS BEEN CROPPED
Bacurau is a 2019 Brazilian mid-western film. Courtesy of Tiff | IMAGE HAS BEEN CROPPED

There are some things you just expect to see when you watch a western: cowboys, horses, a cactus here and there, a dramatic standoff with an ominous bird’s caw in the background. Bacurau, a Brazilian movie described in its official synopsis as a “weird western,” has all of that and more. Directors Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles understand that having “weird” as a qualifier for your movie requires truly weird things; so take all the aforementioned spaghetti western tropes and add Nazis, UFOs, and futuristic technology, and you have Bacurau in a nutshell.

The film’s first shot is of a satellite slowly floating through space, and as suddenly as the vast emptiness of space appears on the screen, it disappears, and we are taken to a different kind of vast emptiness: that of rural Brazil. Part desert, part forest, with some regions exposed to sweltering heat, others perpetually soaked in rain, our main character Teresa ­— played by Bárbara Colen — drives in a water truck to the fictional town of Bacurau. But to call Teresa a main character would be a disservice to both Teresa and the movie, because there is only one clear character throughout the entire film and that is the town itself.

We are introduced to Bacurau through its inhabitants, presented to us in sequences and orders that can only be called chaotic. A nude botanist who collects seeds that have psychedelic effects, an old, wise doctor who becomes vulgar when she drinks, and a protective gangster who’s trigger happy with his gun; the residents of Bacurau appear to have individual capabilities so eccentric, you have trouble believing they coexist in the same small village. But, then again, so do the buildings: a church that is not used for prayer, but rather for storage, and a cultural museum that no one seems to have an interest in. The infrastructure and the villagers end up working together synergistically in the finale, supporting the idea that the inhabitants and the structures in Bacurau are truly an amalgamation of just one thing: Indigenousness.

But Bacurau’s issue is not in unifying its residents, who are introduced to us divided because of a harsh political climate, the real danger facing our characters is the fact that they are being physically hunted — but to reveal more is to reveal the tricks Filho and Dornelles have cleverly hidden throughout their two hour movie.

Bacurau is a stern reminder that ability does not grant permission; having the technology to do something doesn’t mean that it actually should be done. Contrasting cultural traditions, like funerals and dances with sleek technological apparatuses and folklore tales with contrived debates about morality and race, Filho and Dornelles draw a stark line between their heroes and their villains. Today’s narratives tend to offer commonalities between protagonists and antagonists — two people with the same life trajectory, which deviates at one specific point, conveniently labelling one the ‘goodie’ and the other the ‘baddie’ — but Bacurau does no such thing. And in that sense, it truly is faithful to classic westerns: no ambiguity, no redeeming qualities for the villains,  and heroes that are easy to cheer for.

Bacurau is a movie about a fictional town named after a fictional bird, filled with fictional people who practise fictional traditions — but their hunters, our villains, are anything but fictional. And therein lies the real magic of Bacurau: we are able to so emphatically root for our heroes, a people completely foreign to us, because we are so familiar with the evil that is hunting them.