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Bacurau

Kino // Unrated // July 14, 2020
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted August 22, 2020 | E-mail the Author
When the 2016 US Presidential election ended, some people said, "Well, at least we'll get great art." Even before that art was actually created, it was already an embarrassingly weak attempt to put a good face on the violence, injustice, and criminal negligence to follow, but four years later, it's safe to say that a great deal of the "creativity" spawned by the new administration is awful enough to go straight into the dumpster -- "SNL"-sketch level parodies and caricatures that are sure to age like milk, and have very little insight beyond "gee, what a dope this guy is!" Of course, it would be a mistake to assume that Bacurau, a Brazilian film that could be most easily categorized as a western, has anything to do with American politics, but regardless of their inspirations, writer/directors Kleber Mendonca Filho and Juliano Dornelles have digested a certain 21st century political climate and produced an urgent revolutionary parable.

The tiny Brazilian town of Bacurau has a lively but essentially quiet population. When the village's matriarch Carmelita passes away, the entire population of around 100 to 120 people shows up to mourn. The citizens are self-governing, self-organized, and content with their own internal ecosystem and economy, even while larger powers attempt to cut off or limit their water supply. They are pressured by a corny local politician named Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima) who shows up to "donate books" (delivered by dump truck) and "provide food and medicine" (expired groceries and an addictive medicine with dangerous and dehabilitating side effects). Then suspicious things begin happening -- first, Bacurau mysteriously disappears from sattelite maps. Then, cell phone signals go down. The road is cut off. Someone puts bullet holes into the town's water truck. Finally, a strange-looking UFO-style drone appears, and the villagers find the residents of a local farmhouse slaughtered.

Tonally and stylistically, Bacurau is an odd beast. The film does not follow much of a traditional story structure or land on any particular tone. Much of the film, naturally, is simply dedicated to finding ways to illustrate the normal lives the citizens lead, including hints at their sense of community, their traditions, their families, their sex lives, etc. At Carmelita's funeral, the local doctor, Domingas (Sonia Braga) makes a drunken scene, but the next day she seems apologetic and nobody seems to hold a grudge -- everyone knows and understands her eccentricites. Another villager, Pacote (Thomas Aquino), has some kind of history as a violent gangster, and yet nobody is particularly worried about him -- in one scene, the village is seen watching a YouTube clip of his apparent murders on a large digital screen as casually as if it were any other compilation of wild internet videos. The plot is straightforward: the villagers are minding their own business when it becomes clear that someone is aiming to make some kind of move on them.

In this case, that someone is a band of mercenaries led by Michael (the legendary Udo Kier), most or all of whom appear to be American, and all of whom are complete sociopaths. One member of Michael's squad complains that the strategy they're taking in disabling Bacurau's resources one-by-one is frustrating because it doesn't involve enough killing, and the entire group seems to have a competition for who can pick off the most villagers. Even the supposedly sympathetic one, who seems upset when a squad member murders a child, later tells a story about wanting to murder his ex-wife or shoot up a mall, thanking God for the opportunity to take it out on Bacurau's residents instead. In some ways, the squad's motivations are fairly meaningless and their mysterious backers are irrelevant; the point is that they have absolute certainty that they have the authority and the right to do exactly what they're doing, and no doubt that they're going to succeed.

Of course, the residents of Bacurau aren't going down without a fight, and the film builds to a confrontation between the villagers and the mercenaries. That's not a spoiler -- Bacurau embodies Roger Ebert's philosophy that a film is not defined by what happens but how the film tells that story, in the sense that there are no real twists and turns (even if the movie is a genre oddity). The film is satisfying in its straightforward approach, in its shorn-down dialogue, in its strong but largely functional performance, in its shorthand for how its characters think and what they believe, in its clear and crisp use of the scope frame (with details such as a character darting across a doorway barely captured as the camera pans past, or a face and a hidden aggressor framed together in a striking split diopter composition). What makes the movie satisfying is its illustration of the strength of communal strength and organizing, and the way it speaks to the power of a collective even in the face of larger systemic forces conspiring around them. Whether or not Bacurau reflects the US's current political reality, those living through it could learn something from Bacurau's understanding of how revolution is fought for, and won.

The Blu-ray
Bacurau makes its Blu-ray debut with painted poster artwork by Tony Stella on the front, a design that evokes Struzan in concept (floating heads) but not art style, favoring a slightly more impressionistic approach to the images of the cast. The white backdrop carries over to the back cover, where there are a couple of photographs accompanying pull quotes, the box copy, and the special features, and there is a booklet inside the Viva Elite case featuring an essay by film critic, scholar, and artist Fabio Andrade.

The Video and Audio
Kino Lorber offers Bacurau in a predictably excellent 2.39:1 1080p AVC-encoded transfer with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack (with DTS-HD MA 2.0 option also available). The film has a natural appearance, with lots of bright outdoor scenes lit by sunlight, and yet the image is refined and stable with no blooming or serious white crush where the sunlight hits the actors or costumes directly, and colors are vivid without appearing boosted. When the film is darker, there is no significant issues with compression artifacts or banding, even during that are lit mostly by flashlights (although there are some details some might consider issues, like digital chroma noise and motion trails, that are part of the original photography and not anything introduced by the disc). Fine detail is excellent throughout. Sound starts out mostly naturalistic, but Bacurau integrates a couple of musical sequences (not exactly song-and-dance, but someone is singing), light action-movie style gunplay, sci-fi technological beeping and distortion, and an intriguing mix of classical-sounding music and John Carpenter-style synth, giving the HD audio a wide range of styles and tones, all of which are handled vibrantly and with great, immediate clarity. Two English subtitle tracks are included, one which only subtitles the Portuguese and French dialogue, and one which provides subtitles for the entire film, a distinction which is common but still always appreciated.

The Extras
The package is led by "Bacurau on the Map" (61:05), a meaty, fly-on-the-wall-style making-of documentary by co-writer/co-director Kleber Mendonca Filho. This basically follows the entire production, watching as the cast and crew tackle each scene one-by-one, from the rehearsal through to the actual filming (and even through to the finished shot), as well as candid on-the-set moments, and post-production elements like sound mixing and editing, and even what appears to be an audience watching the film. Occasionally, you even see the making-of the making-of documentary, catching glimpses of someone recording something with a cell phone camera right before the documentary cuts to that footage. Throughout, there are brief moments with various cast and crew members talking to the camera, but there are no sit-down, talking-head style interviews in the piece -- Filho is interested in the minutia of filmmaking, showing the little details (such as a camera crew lifting a camera dolly onto its track, the rehearsing of a song sung by the entire village, an effects artist combing the hair of a dummy head, Kier walking around practicing his lines) that even other, similar documentaries don't tend to show. There's also quite a bit of the directors actually directing the actors, which is quite fascinating. Much like Bacurau itself, the piece speaks to a communal effort, capturing the work of each person involved to help the filmmakers realize their vision. Most of the documentary is in Portuguese, with English subtitles.

The filmmakers can be heard from again in two further video extras. A Q&A with the co-writers/co-directors and actor Sonia Braga from Film at Lincoln Center (14:45). The filmmakers talk about unexpectedly making Aquarius before Bacurau (which was initially developed in 2009), and the similarities between Bacurau and their other work, genre films, while Braga talks about the experience of working with Filho and Dornelles previously, and working in Brazil, her thoughts on the differences between her characters in Aquarius and Bacurau, and something that compelled her about the character. She also tells a very funny story about going on a date with Udo Kier. They also, albeit very briefly, touch on the film's place in the context of modern politics (albeit, mostly Brazilian politics). There is also a new interview with the co-writer/co-directors Filho and Dornelles (9:02) recorded just for this disc. They chat briefly about their history together, then get further into the political angle, even going so far as to confirm that "basically, the movie became what it is after Donald Trump's election," and discussing how that parallels Brazilian politics, and how to incorporate real-world elements without simplifying them or translating them too directly, as well as doing the same things with genre cinema, particularly Westerns. There is also a bit of technical discussion about the traditional Panavision cameras used to make the movie, filmmaking technique in Brazil, and the challenge of wrangling a large cast.

Two final video extras are made up of existing footage. A single deleted scene (2:03) fleshes out the villagers a little more with a scene of their various interactions at a community market. More significantly, there is a 2011 short by co-writer/co-director Dornelles, Mens Sana in Corpore Sano (21:47), an eerie horror satire about a man whose obsession with fitness takes him down a dark road. Amusing and worth a look, fitting in with the feature's combination of genre filmmaking and social commentary.

Finally, in case the viewer's desire to learn more about the production has still not been sated, there is an audio commentary by co-writer/co-director Kleber Mendonca Filho (note: this is under the audio menu, not the extras menu). The commentary is in English, and opens with Filho mentioning that the commentary was recorded in May 2020, after the pandemic began, which he notes "because I think a commentary is also a document." Filho is a subdued speaker, but speaks consistently, launching into a low-key chat about his history with Dornelles, the long road to production, the challenges of shooting in Brazil, his various influences (including specific references embedded in the film), and more on the film's themes and sociopolitical commentary. As one can probably tell, many of these subjects are covered elsewhere, but Filho has more room to go into detail on the track, fleshing out and expanding upon some of his comments and observations that one can make watching the other extras on the disc, and there are some new observations (I don't think it was evident from the documentary that the shoot was besieged by rain).

An original theatrical trailer for Bacurau is also included.

Conclusion
Bacurau is, perhaps, a slightly more subdued slow-burn than some of the effusive festival reviews might lead one to believe, but the film's philosophical or ideological statement is a rousing one, especially in such troubling times. Kino Lorber's package is a pretty definitive home run as well, featuring a sharp presentation and a wealth of supplemental features. Highly recommended.


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