Bacurau is in trouble. First, the small Brazilian town, somewhere near São Paulo, has its water cut off. Then it loses cell service and disappears from satellite maps. Later, its electricity cuts out. Its residents soon realize that this is no accident. Their village is under siege.
“Bacurau,” directed by Juliano Dornelles (“O Ateliê da Rua do Brum”) and Kleber Mendonça Filho (“Aquarius”), is a wild piece of pulp cinema. Yet, deep down, it’s also a scathing critique of imperialism in its many forms. “Bacurau” is satire on the edge of a knife, political commentary delivered by storms of machine gunfire and written in blood. It’s one of 2020’s most entertaining movies yet.
Bárbara Colen’s (“Outer Edge”) Teresa comes back to Bacurau for her grandmother’s funeral. The town is a single dusty street and most of its buildings are run down. The church has become storage space and their single tourist attraction — a museum about Bacurau’s history — is rarely visited.
Yet its inhabitants care deeply about one another, which the movie takes great care to emphasize early on. They gather for the grandmother’s funeral and sing in unison as they carry her to the grave. They share food and medicine and work together to get water when it’s cut off by the powers that be. The denizens of the town are diverse and individually characterized, of many races, sexual orientations and gender identities. A highlight is Sonia Braga’s (“Wonder”) Dominga, the town doctor who gets some of the film’s funniest lines.
The first act, while mostly tranquil, is so well written and performed that it could have lasted the rest of the movie. Yet danger soon comes to Bacurau. A gang of white mercenaries, led by Udo Kier (“Iron Sky”), wants to kill everyone in the town. Their motivations are unclear for most of the movie’s runtime — all one knows is that they’re immature psychopaths who only value white lives and love guns to the point of fetishization. Yet in most American movies they’d be the heroes.
Hollywood and xenophobia have always gone hand in hand. There are countless movies where white people go to an “uncivilized” place and encounter people of color who want to kill, eat or sacrifice them. This is no 20th century trend, either. “The Green Inferno” in 2013 had white students go try and save the Brazillian rainforest only to be eaten by native people. In 2015, perhaps even more heinously, “No Escape” Owen Wilson and Pierce Brosnan are chased around Thailand by crowds of gun-toting, crazed Southeast Asian people. Mainstream American films love placing white people in fictionally hostile cultures and showing their fight to escape, as if that was all other countries were good for.
This cliché isn’t just isolated to movies, either. Isn’t the Christopher Columbus most elementary schoolers learn about just a white man who extinguishes a culture deemed dangerous and inferior? Lewis and Clark are also iconic American pioneers, but didn’t they also help open the floodgates for imperialistic expansion? It doesn’t matter if the narrative is cinematic or historical. If a white American is in control, it usually follows a pattern: violent, white protagonists steamroll the “uncivilized” lands they encounter.
The white cinematic mainstream haunts “Bacurau.” The mercenaries carry iconic American weapons like the Thompson Machine Gun and Colt Revolver and speak in earpieces like something out of “Mission Impossible.” They even take over the narrative for much of the third act, changing the film’s language from Portuguese to English and showing just how damaging Hollywood’s whitewashing can be, literally silencing the voices of an entire population. The townspeople of Bacurau are replaced by disgusting, childish villains straight out of a B-movie, and they are missed in each Americanized frame.
Yet, unlike in many Hollywood movies, the clichés are broken. The townspeople work together to fight back in a stellar, no holds barred finale. Its flurry of bullets, blood and brains is not just a perfectly crafted gore show, but also a triumph over harmful stereotypes and the reclaiming of a narrative. People who aren’t Americans have histories, personalities and value, and sometimes the white man with the gun isn’t the hero. It’s high time America caught on to that.