Bacurau: Sergio Leone Reincarnated in Brazil

Bacurau brings the standards of a Sergio Leone Western to Brazil, with all the quintessential elements in tow and a fistful of spaghetti to show for it. Because it’s modernized and of Brazil, it is, of course, atypical, and can only be marginally associated as such. That does not deter its directors Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho from wringing every ounce of pasta sauce out of the genre. The country of origin only has a small history of dabbling in the format: the 1961 Berlinale-winner A Morte Comanda o Cangaço and the films of Brazil cult icon José Mojica Marins (fondly known as Coffin Joe, after the horror character he invented) inform us of one thing — the national interests lie firmly between the Zapata and Italian. Bacurau firms up traditions with stringy evocations of Morricone dashes with startling electronica. A heaping portion of whatever-you-could-want, Bacurau is an essential genre success.

Bacurau. Dir. Juliano Dornelles & Kleber Mendonça Filho.

Sure, it has it all: an arsenal of modern weaponry, militarized drones, peculiar cult-like religious behavior, manipulative politicians playing out a resource war, and the tiny titular town, nestled in the mountains as though it grew out of them naturally. The town is named after a weird little bird — short-billed and of an awkward posture — a little nocturnal thing that hunts its prey at night. The single-access road setting is shut off from outside influence. When the voting season comes, politicians arrive with expired food and the drugs they feed the masses. A cultural diorama, it shows us the clear impacts of colonization on the territories (always a crucial note for the Western), in a fight for independence, and the lives of its inhabitants as a rogue militarized group sweeps in and tries picking off civilians one-by-one.

It has a damn good feeling, owing so much to Leone. Without crossing into pastiche, it’s clear where the influences arrive from and how they have settled into the directors’ hands. They utilize every method of aesthetic overcompensation. Occasionally, the mixture of the old and new jar together, but mostly it is meant to feel incongruent, and any oddness achieved by effect, is well-intentioned. It handles the geography of its movements well. We get the long shots of terrain. We’re settled in the sense of place before situations implode. The creators can leverage anxiety and feeling whenever they would like as they hold consistent control over the image.

Bacurau. Dir. Juliano Dornelles & Kleber Mendonça Filho.

All that, and it’s a boldly original work. It may piece together the work of its idol as pastiche, but Bacurau is emboldened to break free whenever it needs. The film always makes it new. Mateus Alves bends the score to the whim of the photography. Everything sounds just right and tidy. It sounds the way it looks. Then, sometimes it does not. Sometimes a John Carpenter song slips between the cracks of the audio framework. Sometimes his excellent “Night” reminds us this is a modern piece of grit.

Bacurau creates all of its potential for itself. To say it is like anything else is only to compliment the same arcs, feelings, and throughlines that so evidently inspired the work. It arrives with big new Western energy, with a diametric rightness about it. It’s modern in another way, too: given nationwide theater closures, Kino Lorber has released it through their new streaming platform, one where the film can be rented through regional theater outlets. This is an innovative new model attached to a film that feels worthy of a novel approach. Bacurau is a proud, angry work that earns its influences, a worthy Western from Brazil.


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