Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
We don’t know why the village of Bacurau is vanishing from satellite maps, or losing its phone service. Could be some kind of Andromeda Strain situation is happening with this place in the Brazilian jungle—there’s even a spaceship hovering around, albeit a small one—but the eventual revelation is funnier and weirder than simple sci-fi. Whatever you expect from the opening half-hour of this movie, what you get is not that.
Bacurau comes from Kleber Mendonça Filho (working here with co-director and production designer Julian Dornelles), who made my #1 film of 2016, Aquarius. Both films are richly political and as spiky as dragon’s tails. But Bacurau is a much crazier enterprise altogether, crammed with elitist homicidal maniacs, nudists with blunderbusses, Mad Max types who consider Che Guevara less than manly, bikers in 1980s-gaudy costumes, and Udo Kier. There are also John Carpenter in-jokes, because nothing is left out.
I hesitate to describe exactly what Bacurau is about, because the way the film changes at around the halfway point is mighty scintillating. But it has to do with the small town trying to define the current weirdness, and a group of outsiders who descend upon the scene. If you’ve heard anything about the story, you may know that a certain amount of social satire is slapped together with a hefty dollop of pulp fiction. Maybe it’s a kind of revenge fantasy, but it’s better described as a justice fantasy, in which the have-nots are allowed to get theirs back.
Big gobs of plot get mashed together here—something about a dam being held by activists, something about a Bolsonaro-like local politico, something about the town’s doctor (Sonia Braga) and her prickly manners. At times Filho and Dornelles seem to be rolling with whatever lights up a scene, including the watery-eyed umbrage Udo Kier takes at being called a Nazi. And yes, that moment is as good as it sounds. The film also pauses for Kier and Braga to share a scene, and even a potential al fresco meal, at a moment of high tension: two international-cinema icons, looking very comfortable, both in on the movie’s zany joke. Someone please cast these two in a spaghetti western, or an empanada western, or anything.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.