One of the interesting things about living through These Times is observing how people and small businesses adapt to survive. Restaurants, for example, are offering newly configured takeout options, while shops offer online sales and free shipping. Few operations, however, are placed in as tricky a predicament as independent movie theaters, whose entire model is based around packing strangers into an enclosed space to share a communal experience. Nevertheless, these institutions (which, it should go without saying, are indescribably important to the city’s cultural landscape and must be preserved) are finding new and exciting ways to interact with their audiences and stay afloat. In addition to public drives for donations, memberships, and gift card sales (jump to the bottom of this article to see how you can help), the Brattle is starting up their own podcast and curating series to stream along at home, while the Capitol Theatre in Arlington is hosting a drive-through popcorn pop-up. Perhaps most exciting, however, is the Coolidge’s newly launched virtual screening room, which allows you to digitally rent new release films which would be playing at the theater, with a portion of your rental fee going directly to the theater. The service kicked off this past Wednesday with the indie dramedy Saint Frances and the cockeyed mycology documentary Fantastic Fungi. Today, the Coolidge adds another new release, which should satisfy those currently jonesing for the Coolidge’s beloved After Midnight series: the humane, outrageous, and bracingly relevant Bacurau.
Bacurau is a tiny, remote village located deep in the mountains of Brazil. It’s a tight-knit, if slightly hard-edged, town, its only contacts with the world at large being occasional deliveries from sympathetic outsiders and useless campaign stops by local gladhanding politician Tony Junior. Following the death of local matriarch Carmelita, however, the villagers begin noticing a series of odd occurrences: cell phones stop working, the town quietly disappears off of Google Maps, and what appears for all the world to be a tiny flying saucer is spotted flitting around the peripheries. Soon, the town is beset by a squad of white mercenaries (led by Udo Kier, whose presence has served as shorthand for “shit’s gonna get weird” for over half a century) who use only vintage firearms and approach mass murder as something akin to big game hunting. But the citizens of Bacurau have a handful of secrets of their own up their sleeves, leading to a showdown that no one could have seen coming.
While it feels crass to suggest that a film’s release could benefit from a global pandemic, it does feel fortuitous that Bacurau comes to us in this particular moment of socio-economic chaos. Take, for example, the scenes in which the buffoonish Tony Junior wheels into town to deliver school books (unceremoniously unloaded via dump truck) and medicine (which, the local doctor patiently explains, is barely superior to snake oil). When the townspeople (who refuse to leave their houses to avoid photo ops) curse him out for refusing to reinstate their water supply, he blithely demurs that his hands are tied, then gets back into his motorcade. It’s a moment that feels so specifically relevant to the mess we currently find ourselves in that one could probably be convinced it was a direct response, even though that would obviously be impossible. Like Jordan Peele, whose Get Out was shot in 2016 and released in the early months of the Trump presidency, directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles show such a keen eye for humanity that their film’s vitality has only increased. Good satire speaks directly to its times; great satire maintains that feeling no matter when you watch it.
But there’s more to Bacurau than political theatrics. For much of its first act, Bacurau is positively low key, presented as a slice of life among the residents of Bacurau. Most memorable is town doctor Dominga (played by Kiss of the Spider Woman’s Sônia Braga), a notorious local eccentric who drunkenly crashes funerals, helpfully lends beds to sex workers, and, by all appearances, holds the town together by sheer force of will. But the rest of the villagers are just as appealing: the guitar player who cheerfully serenades tourists while insulting them to their faces; the DJ who serves as town crier and Greek chorus through his portable PA; kindly city doctor Teresa, who brings badly needed (real) medicine when she comes to visit her father; low-level thug Pacote, who senses before anyone that foul deeds are afoot. If the film never left this mode, it would still be a perfectly satisfying slice of world cinema.
But of course, Filho and Dornelles are playing a longer, stranger game; not for nothing is the town schoolhouse named “Ecole Municipal de João Carpenteiro.” Bacurau isn’t quite a horror movie– I’ll let you know in advance that the flying saucer is actually a drone– but it owes more than a little debt to any number of grimy genre niches, from spaghetti westerns and gangland operas to Italian cannibal shockers and revenge sagas. Once the gloves come off– and they come off so fast you almost miss it– Bacurau pulls no punches, and is every bit as gnarly as any of its influences. Credit, again, is due to Filho and Dornelles, who make their blend of genres and styles look so easy that you scarcely notice they’re doing it.
Is Bacurau a rough watch? At times, sure: there’s a handful of genuinely shocking moments that may make you wince, or avert your eyes, or perhaps even wonder if you want to keep going. These are difficult times, after all, and I understand if your state is fragile enough at the moment that you’d rather avoid films that turn an unflinching eye toward man’s inhumanity to man. But believe me when I say that, rather than coming off as punishing, Bacurau is as funny, furious, and exhilaratingly alive as any film of the past five years. It’s fitting that Bacurau premiered (and won the Jury Prize) at the same Cannes festival where Parasite won the Palme d’Or; the two share a sense of righteous anger and comic anarchy, and leave you with a similar sense of wanting to fuck shit up in the best possible way. Combined, the two make a compelling argument for world cinema as the new punk rock. As I write this, it’s anyone’s guess how many new films see the light of day in 2020 at all, but even if we manage to get a bumper crop, I’m fairly certain Bacurau will remain one of my favorites.
dir. Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles
Available to rent via Coolidge Virtual Screening Room 3/27-4/9 – Click here for details
Streaming is no substitute for taking in a screening at a locally owned cinema, and right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.