Throughout the delirious beats of its climax, Bacurau demands the viewer to both abandon and embrace their humanity. As the underdog marches to victory, the joy of cruel, uncensored death blends into shameless satisfaction. There’s a numbing sense of ecstasy as rusty old knifes cut through the white, arrogant skin of the foreign villains, bullets ricocheting to the rhythm of its own glorious orchestra – the lives of the hunters ceased by the calloused hands of their prey.
Buckets of water are dropped on the blood-covered floors of the small town museum, the camera panning to the wall, where an equally bloodied handprint lies almost decoratively “We’ll clean it up all good, we’ll scrub the floor, but leave the walls as they are”. On the aftermath of yet another battle, the museum firmly stands its ground as the breathing core of a community that has been on the brink of oblivion many times over. This scarred, beaten building a mirror of the resilience of the people it represents.
The arid land of Bacurau seems sterile at first, the relentless Sun passionately kissing the ground until night comes to finally take its place. A handful of houses alongside a narrow, unpaved street a universe of its own. When entering this world, one is made welcome through the gifting of an unnamed psychotropic. If offered, acceptance is the only conceivable response. The trance triggered by the substance is the ultimate leveller: all people of Bacurau drum to the same drug-induced tempo.
With a heightened communal awareness, it doesn’t take long for the citizens of the small village to realise something has breached the order. Overnight, Bacurau has vanished from the map, its existence digitally wiped clean. Flying objects start roaming the surroundings, and precious livestock runs free, indicating there’s an unattended gate nearby. By the following day, the isolated community sees its first intruders, two flamboyantly dressed outsiders stating to be tourists. From there on, the place is no longer safe, its citizens – one by one – mercilessly shot to death.
At the height of seven years old, a Brazilian child is introduced to the concept of colonisation, the differences between a settlement colony and an exploitation colony, Brazil belonging to the latter. The romanticised version of the country’s “discovery” by Portuguese captain Pedro Álvares Cabral is seeded into the years of attentive children, who marvel at the idea of an almighty figure fearlessly navigating the oceans in the search of a New World. What a blessing to be part of such grandeur.
In between play sessions and pre-packed snacks, kids need to wrap their heads around the fact their country was once nothing more than a free-for-all digging site, its richness plucked away from the ground and shipped to the far lands of Europe. History books attempt to soften the blow with pictures of beautifully adorned crowns, luxurious tropical palaces in the middle of the jungle and stories of people of all colour merging into one exquisite specimen: the Brazilian.
In a beaten house that might have once been a Casa-Grande (literally translated to Big House) a group of heavily armed Americans examines their gadgets. Casa-Grande was the name given to the lavish residences of slave owners, a prominent occurrence in the Northeast of Brazil. These buildings were the utmost symbol of privilege and greed of erstwhile, a tangible structure representative of intangible structures. Here, the Casa-Grande comes full circle with the presence of this bunch of modern hunters whose mission is clear: to annihilate whoever crosses their path. To them, the people of Bacurau have no name, no family, no history. They are mere game.
Played by king of character actors Udo Kier, Michael is weighed by the heaviness of many similar trips, his patience weary and his commands rabidly concise. Blessed by blissful arrogance, the hunters believe the mission to be a done deal, their precious vintage firearms throbbing in their belts, pleading to be used. Engulfed by sheer excitement, these enraged adults are turned into giddy children, and Michael is the twisted fatherly figure in charge of holding their unsteady hands.
“God’s given me the opportunity to deal with that pain here”, says one of the Americans when strutting to Bacurau. In a heart to heart with his peers, the man confesses to have knocked on his ex-wife’s house, gun in hand, prepared to silence heartbreak with blood. Having missed the woman, he drove to a mall, same gun cocked and ready to go. The lives he believes to have spared in his homeland now neatly handed over to him by the almighty hands of what it can only be an all-American God.
I was raised to believe my heritage was lesser than. Not by my father, whose chest puffed with pride on being Brazilian, but by a system that valued the foreign above all. On television, the Looney Tunes walked amongst grand Canyons and carried old hunting rifles, symbols of a different world. By the time I entered my teenage years, I longed for cold afternoons, for the chance to strut along Central Park, a warm Starbucks cup in hand. Were Ross and Rachel on a break? Will my fictional relationship with Robert Pattinson ever have to endure the mundane hardships suffered by young adults in Manhattan?
Hairdressers were decorated with posters of Julianne Moore, Cameron Diaz and Angelina Jolie. Stores were given Americanised names that rarely reflected their business. On the radio, the repetitive pop beats of my beloved Backstreet Boys. Every December, men would earn some extra bucks by walking on a jolly furnace made out of fabric. Layers and layers of red, white and black, a big, bushy beard – Coca-Cola’s Santa strutting on the infernal streets of Rio de Janeiro at the height of summer. No kids would ever want a photo with a Santa in shorts and sandals.
It was simple to ingrain in my young head the idea that what came from overseas was dipped in gold. Oh, to have been born in London! Or Paris! Or New York! Oh, to have natural blond hair and slim noses, to walk on petite ankles embellished by a pair of brand new Converse shoes! Before I could even ask myself what I expected from a life I was just starting to navigate, I was attempting to master the British accent with the help of pop bands and Harry Potter films, daydreaming of one day making it big. Whatever big meant.
Hands coming together in applause to welcome home Lunga (Silvero Pereira), the renegade son of Bacurau. Hairless chest shining under the unobstructed moon, confident steps taken by someone who earned the right to enter through the front door. Lunga, a genderqueer rereading of the cangaceiro, the classic Northeastern bandit immortalised by the tale of Lampião and Maria Bonita – Brazil’s own Bonnie and Clyde – is an unsung hero turned legend. To invoke Lunga is to proclaim the gravity of this unknown threat, to recognise the possible need for carnage. As the villagers play to the sound of capoeira, the town prepares. This ritualistic ode to past warriors a last cry for help.
With the morning sun, Bacurau turns battlefield. Directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles set foot on the gas, proving Brazilian cinema owes nothing to the good old Hollywoodian gore. In the outskirts of the village, a man tends to his plants, his nudity as natural as the surrounding leafs. Here, to be bare is not to be vulnerable, it’s to be whole, to lay no barriers between body and land. As the attackers – delightfully named Will and Kate -make their way to the man’s hut, Bacurau turns a corner. Naked but for the veil of sheer courage, Adam and Eve, the village’s own royal couple, state loud and clear: we are no sitting duck.
“Do you want to live or to die?” the man asks the severely injured Kate, the camera echoing Tarantino’s classic trunk shot, shifting the power balance and silently crowning the indisputable winners. Contrary to the Americans, the natives have no craving for death. They demand only what is rightfully theirs: the right to live unbothered in place they call home. To offer a chance to live to the one who coveted their death is to inundate with mercy the bleak void of their assailants, it is victory twice over.
And with the first domino knocked, the game no longer has an announced winner. Stretching every minute between them and a bullet, the home team basks in the unaccounted advantage of the familiar grounds. Blindsided, the Americans feel betrayed: “I thought we’d come in and just start shooting”. It is inconceivable to even think they would become prey in the hands of the savages they so loudly belittled. But oh prey they do become. Guarded by the sacred walls of a school and a museum, the population of Bacurau rewrites history on the arid land where past generations suffered endlessly in the hands of the white man.
When chatting with Bacurau’s directing duo after yet another festival exhibition I travelled miles to attend, I was told American audiences were astonished to see themselves as the villains. Many simply could not accept a take on their beloved western that placed them as the bad guys. “Why not?” asked Mendonça Filho. “If this is a Brazilian film, then this is a Brazilian point of view”.
“I think he could have been a good person once. Don’t you think, Domingas?”
“He had a mother”
Chopped heads and bloodied limbs can hardly shock people who grew up on tales of rape, murder and mayhem. The violence suffered by the hands of the colonisers, who so blatantly claimed the right to what could never be truly theirs, is at the core of every person whose mother gave birth in Brazilian soil. How gratifying it is to rejoice in fictional vengeance for a few instants, to be gifted the opportunity to imagine a vastly different past. How beautiful to see the camera briefly heal generational wounds that loom at the corner, patiently waiting to be reopened by the ending credits.