Bird Lives

Howard Hampton on Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s Bacurau (2019)

Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Bacurau 2019, DCP, sound, color, 131 minutes.

BARELY A SPECK ON A SATELLITE MAP: That’s Bacurau, an imaginary one-street town in strife-torn northeastern Brazil “a few years from now,” until the moment it isn’t there anymore. Fifteen minutes into this carnival of subterranean cross-pollination, a teacher (Wilson Rabelo) tries to show his students on his iPad where their village is, to find that it’s no longer on the grid, erased from Google Earth. Bacurau is also a name for a “cryptically colored” nighthawk known for its ability to go unseen—a real bird with a place in legend and folklore, also known in some quarters as a “goatsucker.”

After leisurely, samba-inflected opening credits, the camera descends from the cosmos on a water-tanker weaving its anxious way down an empty backroad. Something’s in the air, as if Henri-Georges Clouzot’s nerve-wracking The Wages of Fear had crossed the border into the myth-saturated desert ruins of Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana. The affable man and woman in the truck nervously pass an overturned lorry that has left coffins strewn along the roadside (which is being scavenged by a handful of utilitarian passersby). The duo outlines a few details on the way there: The town’s water supply has been cut off in a dispute with the provincial authorities, a low-level conflict is underway across the area, and a local rebel/outlaw called Lunga (Silvero Pereira) has a price on her head. Written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Bacurau spent a decade in development and is a semi-phantasmagorical reconstruction of both the northern lore and movie archetypes they absorbed growing up. As systematically worked out as these contradictory yet congruent elements are, at every turn where the movie might get bogged down in overdetermined plotting or italicized bullet points, there are three or four complicating, nuanced elements to balance out the obvious.

The community-under-siege premise is a launching pad for the directors to flip a host of movie scripts (everything from Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven to Predator and The Wild Bunch). In order for this conceit to work, we have to buy into the community: Here Dornelles and Mendonça lay out the town’s roots with a sense of constant discovery and oblique revelation. Extrapolating from memories, oral traditions, found objects, strict poetic license, and pop detritus, they fashioned a living, functionally funky utopia on the margins of the real.

Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Bacurau 2019, DCP, sound, color, 131 minutes. Udo Kier.

When the water truck arrives, a funeral is underway for Bacurau’s matriarch: an imposing black woman who even in death casts a spell over the generations gathered to mourn and celebrate her. The town is diversity itself, a whole spectrum of racial and sexual individuality, a jumble of nonconformity: Its history is so fabled it even has its own museum, the decisive contents of which aren’t seen until the final reels. The museum is full of Easter eggs that turn out to be hand grenades. Off to one side, Sônia Braga’s fierce doctor (when she isn’t hurling drunken, grief-stricken imprecations at the deceased) emerges as a voice of reason—if “I’ll feed your cock to the hens” is understood as a declaration of basic human rights.

Back at the funeral procession, the crowd warbles a song that is immortal and prophetic:

A feast of fear and terror
Phantoms haunt the wake
Punching holes in the trunk of night,
The woodpecker’s beak.

Did I mention the members of the funeral party have also ritually ingested a “powerful psychotropic drug”? And that visions of water pouring out of the matriarch’s coffin drift across the screen like incense? Just as you think you’re getting your hallucinatory bearings, the film slips into social comedy mode, residents teasing and bickering and hooking up against a backdrop of skewed normality. A big-screen TV on the back of a truck serves as the town’s entertainment center; over his loudspeaker, the DJ serves as news anchor, traffic reporter, life coach, and town crier (“Paulo Roberto . . . Jade’s trying to reach you. Pick up the phone!”). A flatbed truck carrying a portable brothel arrives at home base, the prostitutes laughing and bathing in an open-air shower. That water recirculates through the hulk of an abandoned school bus that’s been turned into a greenhouse.

Then the hamlet’s sentries announce that outsiders are approaching. In rolls the despised local politician Tony Jr., rotten scion of the landowner class, with his mobile billboard, his retinue, and some “supplies” (expired food and narcotics, random books that are dumped in front of the school like trash in a landfill). The townspeople have disappeared en masse as he speaks to their dust. And almost imperceptibly, Bacurau kicks into gear: This perfect little bit of campaign satire switches to quiet dread when Tony’s minions force a young prostitute to go with them and his buffoonery turns to ruthless threat.

Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Bacurau 2019, DCP, sound, color, 131 minutes. Sônia Braga and Luciana Souza.

Before this shift is even fully registered, there’s a transitional wipe across the screen and a village elder motorcyclist is being buzzed by a UFO-shaped drone that resembles Plan 9 from Outer Space merch. What soon comes into view is a sequential series of episodes that advances the story from different angles. Horse stampedes, espionage, farmland massacres—it’s all breaking loose in Bacurau. This heralds the arrival of a motley band of American killers, led by a supremely grizzled Udo Kier. These cartoon imperialist-stooges turn out to be tourists on some kind of murder-spree holiday. As the movie unpacks their homicidal arrogance and cruelty, they look less like a lost Schwarzenegger patrol than an embittered, mostly middle-aged Brat Pack venting their Office-level frustrations on the natives.

As several movies are seemingly being gracefully stitched together on the fly, a class-conscious (and conscientious) effort is made to keep in mind that the stakes here are about more than cinematic reference points, and about culture and survival. A midnight village dance ritual set to a throbbing John Carpenter synthesizer piece cuts away to children playing on the outskirts—and one of them is suddenly gunned down by one of the invaders. There are lots of gratifying, adroit, multilayered allusions woven through Bacurau, but they’re never more than incidental to the bigger picture: For Mendonça and Dornelles, humanity walks a razor’s edge, in a state of permanent jeopardy. With their backs to the wall, these villagers have reserves of brute resourcefulness.

The stakes and traps here play out through terse cycles of violence and irrationality, jolts of displacement, rebellion, and retribution. Bacurau is a work that you feel like you could excavate, or wander through, forever: The classic, expectation-defying encounter between Braga and Kier (who could be half brother and sister sired by Klaus Kinski), the infinite unexplained pieces of the villagers’ backstories, the open, knowing look Bárbara Colen’s Teresa wears like her lab coat. That tried truism about how during the making of the film, headlines turned it from fanciful fable into documentary is genuinely applicable—its ten-year gestation period colliding, coinciding, with current events and the resurrection of Brazilian authoritarianism from the ashes of history. Perpetually within and outside of the present moment, Bacurau is a time and space capsule where it would be no more surprising to see a shrine to Sun Ra than it is when we hear the polymorphous Lunga insult the memory of “that fag Che Guevara.”

Bacurau opens at Film at Lincoln Center and IFC Center in New York on March 6.