*Spoilers for Bacurau
Bacurau (dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho, Juliano Dornelles, 2019) takes satire to violent extremes, bursting with a candor that Knives Out lacked––and needed. The film takes place in a near future in the fictional Bacurau, a small town in Brazilian backcountry. After the death of Carmelita, the town’s ninety-four-year-old matriarch, its inhabitants face a series of events that upend the community’s relatively peaceful existence. Much like Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, the film presents a society in microcosm. Another update on the genre film, Bacurau reinvents the Western and broadens its branches into other genres, flirting with “dystopian science fiction and pure pulp (Dargis).” Though Bacurau is humorous, its comedy hardly allows you to laugh. The film uses gore and violence as a blunt instrument to tackle themes of inequality. Even with the usual exaggeration of satire, Bacurau manages to harness its extremes and deliver an inventive and pointed critique.
Just as the whodunit genre enables class critique, Westerns present moral tales of vengeance equally suited for social commentary. In the words of Tarantino: “Westerns are always a magnifying glass (Aquila).” The genre has “retained more continuous popularity,” and been “more involved with fundamental American beliefs about individualism and social progress,” than any other genre (Lenihan, 4). Taking place in the American Old West, films of the genre capture the struggle of the new frontier. Conquest, with all its implications of righteous belonging, takes center stage: structured on conflict between white “pioneer” and “savage Indian,” the Western justifies its heroes’ actions through an essential moral goodness.
Transplanting the Western into Brazilian context, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles revise the classic dynamic of insider versus outsider. Bacurau becomes a “micro-representation of Brazil,” a country that is, according to Dornelles, rich in contradiction, conflict, and inequality. Unlike the usual Western, in which the heroes violently steal land from others, Bacurau’s heroes violently protect their land from others.
There is no central protagonist but rather a main group with whom to identify; the film gives the isolated community of Bacurau great depth, lending them personality, variety and togetherness in a way that feels neither reductive nor romanticized. Knives Out’s Marta bears the burden of acting as the film’s moral compass, but is given no true identity. She is defined only by an essential goodness which stems from her simple immigrant existence. On the other hand, Director Filho suggests that Bacurau was an attempt to make a film “about a small community and they would not be simple, they would be great.” Indeed, the film succeeds in this regard: Bacurau’s inhabitants exhibit a strength that is not conditional on simplicity. The sheer variety of peoples, personalities and experiences is their strength; they possess an intense sense of solidarity while still maintaining a diverse body. There is Domingas (Sônia Braga), the town’s doctor who goes on an alcohol-fueled rage at Carmelita’s funeral, but is also a figure of great care for the community. And there is the outlaw Lunga (Silvero Pereira), who returns to town ready to bloody his hands protecting his former home––with dark painted nails, mullet and fiery eyes, his presence is undeniably alluring.
Not only are Bacurau’s inhabitants complex in character, but their display of moral virtue is not reduced to pacifism. When they are attacked by a group of white Americans––equipped with military-grade weapons and utterly sadistic––they respond in equal measures of violence. The foreigners storm into Bacurau with a singular vision of slaughter, which is given no motive aside from an incredibly disturbing desire to kill for sport; murder for them is entertaining and even therapeutic. Julia, one of the seven-member group, walks by what seems from the exterior to be a vacant school building and says: “I feel like shooting something.” Pointing her gun at the building, firing rapidly. Her firing ends, and the Bacurau citizens hidden in the school fire back, killing her and her partner Joshua. Bacurau’s inhabitants place the decapitated heads of their attackers on a staircase, taking photos of the grim sight. There is no joy however, in their violence––they proceed immediately to memorialize those who lost their lives in the fight.
The violent Americans are given no depth––and they don’t need any, as the films’ social critique is made explicit through their simplification. Each member is outrageously weak, displaying only ridiculous masculinist bravado and racism. The film destroys any illusion of courage in conquest; Bacurau critiques the Western prototype of heroism, dissecting its inflections of whiteness, individualism and imperialism. Filho and Dornelles shocks with villainy––in a particularly horrifying scene, two of the Americans kill a couple attempting to escape Bacurau and then proceed to have sex in celebration. However, unlike the shock of the Thrombeys’ threat of deportation in Knives Out, this shock endures.
At the end it is revealed that the group of foreigners paid Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima), the mayor of Serra Verde––the municipality in which Bacurau is found––for their murder tourism. This presents a critique specific to Brazil, of a “very common type of politics, specifically the coronéis, the landowners (Rubinstein).” According to Pereira, the actor who plays Lunga, landowners like Tony “think that they own everybody.” The community’s resistance is thus a fight against governmental tyranny for the value of their very existence. There is also a clear commentary on privilege. Whiteness privileges those within and outside of Bacurau––it is no mistake that the Brazlians who aid the band of foreigners are white Brazilians, nor is it accidental that the couple who leaves Bacurau in an attempt to save themselves are white. The outsider versus insider dynamic also explicitly politicizes this neo-Western, making the attempted genocide clearly neo-imperalism motivated violence.
Kaleem M. Hawa writes, “the difference between Brazil’s state-sanctioned violence and the vigilante violence of the American safari hobbyists is much like that between cultural violence and physical violence––irrelevant… And so, Bacurau’s modern ‘post’-colonial cinema instead ratchets up our discomfort; in the face of the erasure of one’s world, the destruction of one’s people, is violent resistance really disproportionate?” Though the community of Bacurau use violence to emerge victorious against the Americans––and it should be noted that their violence is necessary––the violence is taxing. And it is suggested that their peril will be ongoing––Michael (Udo Kier), the leader of the group of Americans, yells out his final words: “This is only the beginning!” Bacurau, as satire, is ripe with comedy, but you cannot watch Bacurau and leave with a smile on your face. And for this, the film is tremendously successful. It seems for satire to be effective, it is best to approach the subject at hand quite literally with knives out.
*Bacurau is available to watch on The Criterion Collection.
Aquila, Richard. “”Westerns are always a magnifying glass”: How movies trace social change involving race, gender, ethnicity, youth & class.” Salon, 2015, https://www.salon.com/2015/04/12/%E2%80%9Cwesterns_are_always_a_magnifying_glass_how_movies_trace_social_change_involving_race_gender_ethnicity_youth_class/. Accessed 30 November 2020.
Britannica. “Western.” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/art/western. Accessed 30 November 2020.
Castillo, Monica. “Bacurau.” Roger Ebert, 6 March 2020, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/bacurau-movie-review-2020. Accessed 30 November 2020.
Dargis, Manohla. “’Bacurau’ Review: Life and Death in a Small Brazilian Town.” The New York Times, 5 March 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/05/movies/bacurau-review.html.
Hawa, Kaleem M. “Go In Peace: On erasure and the neo-Western politics of resistance in Filho and Dornelles’ Bacurau.” The Oxonian Review, https://www.oxonianreview.org/wp/go-in-peace-on-erasure-and-the-neo-western-politics-of-resistance-in-filho-and-dornelles-bacurau/. Accessed 30 November 2020.
Lenihan, John H. Showdown, Confronting Modern America in the Western Film. University of Illinois Press, 1980. HathiTrust.
Rubinstein, Bessie. “Drag Artist Silvero Pereira on Getting Blood-Soaked in Bacurau.” Interview, 6 March 2020, https://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/silvero-pereira-bacurau. Accessed 30 November 2020.