"Mapping Bacurau" runs March 13–24, 2020 at Film at Lincoln Center in New York. UPDATE: Film at Lincoln Center has suspended all screenings due to public health concerns related to COVID-19. MUBI is showing Bacurau from March 19 in the United Kingdom, Ireland, India, and Germany.
In 1981, Brazil’s greatest documentary director, Eduardo Coutinho, took a long trip down Paraíba’s poor roads, deep into the backcountry, to find a woman who didn’t want to be found. Elizabeth Teixeira had gone underground 17 years earlier, after the military staged a coup, in 1964, and declared a war on leftists. Teixeira’s husband, João Pedro, a leader of a rural league, had been murdered by the military police, on behest of a local landowner. Fearing for her life, her children dispersed, Elizabeth changed her name and disappeared. But then Coutinho wasn’t one to give up. He had once tried to make a film about João Pedro, a docudrama with non-actors, in the area with a prophetic name, Galilea. That shoot was interrupted by the coup, when the region was raided by the military. But here he was again, marking a date with history.
Retelling this story, and recalling Coutinho’s perseverance in narrating it in his famous documentary, Twenty Years Later (original Portuguese title: Cabra Marcado Para Morrer, 1984), which mixed the 1960s black-and-white semi-fictional footage with his reencounters with Elizabeth, one understands why this film should claim such a central place in “Mapping Bacurau,” the series curated by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, to contextualize the American release of their retrofit western, Bacurau. “Cabra [lit. “guy” in regional parlance] is Bacurau,” Dornelles told me recently when I interviewed him and Mendonça for Film Comment. And if this were a Borgesian story, we could read Bacurau as Cabra’s apotheosis—a frenzied vision that Coutinho might have had, on a chain-smoking night.
Coutinho’s Galilea, located in the state of Pernambuco from which both Mendonça and Dornelles hail, like Bacurau, is at once nowhere and everywhere—seemingly erased yet irrevocably present, it persists in the country’s imaginary. Coutinho knew that there is nothing more dangerous than an image that incarnates history, and that to fix it in the viewers’ minds, to give it a visage and a voice, is to ensure that it cannot be easily erased. Instead, its reincarnations will reflect, like a mirror, new eras’ political and social unrest.
Similarly to Elizabeth’s existence under an alias, much of what fuels the small, scrappy town of Bacurau as it repels a vicious external attack is an open secret: the old guns in its museum; the bandit, Lunga, hiding out on the dry plateau; the violent past of the ex-contract killer, Acácio; finally, a jail cell, which is a hole in the ground, into which the arch-aggressor must eventually crawl. The film’s subaltern energy lends itself naturally to sci-fi and to horror, a sense that we have stumbled upon an uncertain, murky terrain, where nothing is quite what it seems. And where the wages of fear, of violence, are paid in blood.
In this sense, Bacurau is also a reversal of Cabra. Elizabeth, as João Pedro’s widow, bears the mark of personal suffering and historical struggle. What was once a heated battle for a more decent life, by the time Coutinho finds her has faded. Although hearing one of Elizabeth's sons say that he wants Coutinho's film to resist—not just as a document but an act of resistance—we can't fail to note that this is also the time when Brazil's Workers' Party was born. Galileia's spirit isn't dead. Coutinho recognized this, as he strove to reanimate the past. There is Elizabeth: first the young widow with shortly cropped hair, smiling on a black-and-white photograph; and only then Elizabeth as an old woman, finally reunited with all her children, some of whom she hasn’t seen since she left. Coutinho shows the old footage to the old friends of João Pedro and his former actors not for cheap nostalgia, but to keep that memory —that hope—alive. It’s also because he’s filming in 1981, when the crumbling of the military rule, in Brazil, and elsewhere, and the end of the Cold War, aren’t yet a given. His film is one glimpse of utopia in a dark time; Bacurau is certainly another.
Bacurau the town doesn’t wish to be a mausoleum; its spirit of indignation is too fresh. The mayor tries to buy it with expired, psychotropic medicines, books hoarded by the kilo, and cheap promises. It’s all designed to numb. Water shortages are epic. And then the final straw: the town becomes wealthy whites’ safari, only the local humans are prey. It’s not such a wild notion if you consider that the black activist and local council woman, Marielle Franco, was contract-murdered by Rio de Janeiro’s militia, after interfering with the interests of developers. These deaths, including João Pedro’s, are testaments to the fact that, in a hugely unequal world, the rule of law—the rules of the game, period—aren’t made equal for all.
Elizabeth’s posterior backcountry isn’t a place of hope, but rather of endurance. One might ask how much hope Bacurau holds out. One sequence lingers in my mind: In the midst of a savage ambush, the town’s old black resident, nude as Adam, blissfully waters his plants in his rustic greenhouse, talking to them tenderly. But sensing danger, he stealthily slips out, and within seconds, blows the head off of one of his aggressors, fatally wounding another. When she pleads, “help,” using Google translator, he simply asks, “You want to live or die?” And although what follows is darkly parodic, I’m nevertheless struck by the seriousness and the equanimity of this question, which comes across as an act of kindness, perhaps even forgiveness, yet also makes it clear that history gives our black protagonist no reason to spare his white attacker. And yet her death brings him no pleasure; as with his weeds, he’ll try to nurse her to health. In this sense, Bacurau’s roots also spring from Galilea; violence isn’t (always) the answer, nor it does necessarily point to the future.
Bacurau could have also easily been a town like Bahian Milagres, in Ruy Guerra’s Os Fuzis (The Guns, 1964), another Brazilian film in the program. A garrison of soldiers arrives in this small town in the sertão to “preserve order.” The locals are restless; a prolonged drought has brought death and hunger to the region. The soldiers are to make sure that no revolt takes place. Shot in austere black-and-white, in the aesthetic of Cinema Novo—one might recall Nelson Pereira dos Santos’s Barren Lives (1963) or Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s The Priest and the Girl (1966)—Guerra’s anguished film also depicts backlanders’ suffering. And to suffer is to succumb. In one scene, a young father carries a dead child in his arms into a store, to ask for a small-sized coffin. In Bacurau, a dead child is also carried in arms—but the feeling is more Greek tragedy than bleak neorealism. The sacrifice doesn’t appease the gods; the arms are being readied. In Oz Fuzis, revolt is a singular noun—a desperado shootout by a single ex-soldier. Though heroic, it ends in a futile death. The town sinks back into misery, oblivion. Not so with Bacurau. What is at first a pacific coexistence, a willingness to refrain from moralizing, and to allow social ambiguity—like in the historical Canudos, mystics, sex workers, poets and bandits mingle—becomes an act of solidarity that transcends race, class, gender, and social standing, without giving up on individuality. No good folk (gente de bem) on one hand, bandits (bandidos) on the other— just folks (gente), with a common goal.
Ambiguity and humor in Bacurau resonate with another Brazilian film in the series, Carlos Diegues’s Bye Bye Brazil (1980), which also throws in sharp relief Bacurau’s playful flaunting of social mores. In Bye Bye Brazil, a traveling magician, Lorde Cigano (José Walker de Almeida), and his loyal concubine, Salomé (Betty Faria) pick up on the road a young couple from impoverished backcountry: Ciço (Fábio Jr.) and his pregnant wife, Dasdô (Zaira Zambelli). The duo soon becomes a loosely strung quartet: Ciço hopelessly smitten with Salomé (every bit befitting her vixen biblical name), and the maestro with Dasdô. Similarly to Bacurau's Lunga, Lorde Cigano is a performer par excellence—always in character. Itself an indirect evocation of the performative charms of the master of Brazilian spectacle and horror, Zé do Caixão (José Mojica Marins, 1936-2020), the film isn’t any less pertinent for its comedic or melodramatic turn. On the contrary, made around the same time as Cabra, Bye Bye Brazil is clearly an adios to any naïve belief that the economic miracle of the 1970s is here to stay. Wherever Lorde Cigano and his troupe go, Brazil’s Amazon forest is being plundered, Black Americans encounter virulent racism, and its indigenous populations are being slaughtered. Sound familiar? It’s indeed chilling to see how much of Bacurau has deep historical roots. Watching the Brazilian films in “Mapping Bacurau” is to acknowledge what Mendonça told me in the interview: "Brazil has always been not only a crazy place but also full of contradictions."
In the spirit of contradiction, and in a similar vein to Bye Bye Brazil, Bacurau is tinged with magic, perhaps even delirium, yet lucid on what ails the country most. Globalization has accentuated the chasm between the advanced countries and regions and the rest. In this unequal scenario, development doesn't wear a benevolent mask, its steep price forked over by the poor. It’s a scathing take on the scale of Parasite—and it can’t be a coincidence that these two horror and thriller infused films showed in Cannes, side by side in the competition, sending ripples through cinephile crowds worldwide. If Parasite’s brutalist posh mansion is capitalism’s showroom, the dungeon in that film and the environs of Bacurau are the sweatshop and the plundered resource-rich territories. In both films, the truth rises up from the dirt. But Bacurau is also a hymn to solidarity, set to a brisk techno score and to the thumping beat of capoeira. Unlike in Bong’s fatalist ending, where redemption is a fantasy, when violence in Bacurau ends, the floors are doused with water, and mopped, but the bloody imprint on the wall must stay—lest anyone forget. Bacurau then stages its proper carnivalesque farewell: Tony Jr., the deceitful mayor, who sold out Bacurau, is stripped, blindfolded, and despite his threats, sent off naked on a donkey, into the wilderness. “On his way to the Bacurau caatinga,” the DJ intones, once again like in an ancient chorus. “Spinner of lies, natural-born asshole.” Mixing casual slurs with pathos, Bacurau enacts its cathartic purge. For a moment, it writes its own history.