The incendiary Brazilian film “Bacurau” feels as though it’s teetering right on the edge of an oncoming apocalypse. As such, it’s exactly right for these times.
(You can watch it in these times, too. Distributor Kino Lorber is giving this 2019 Cannes Jury Prize winner a “virtual release” via the websites of 80 independent movie theaters, including Brookline’s Coolidge Corner from March 27 through April 2. Twelve dollars gets you a five-day viewing window; further information at kinonow.com/bacurau-coolidge.)
Burning with a magical-realist social fury, the movie takes place in the title town, an isolated village deep in the Brazilian sertão or outback. It’s a place under siege and in open rebellion — although why and against whom is hazily sketched in at first. Suffice to say that the government has dammed the river, forcing locals like Erivaldo (Rubens Santos) to drive in tanker trucks full of water.
On one of his trips, he brings home Teresa (Bárbara Colen), a young firebrand who has been out in the wider world and is returning for the funeral of the town’s matriarch, bringing needed medical supplies with her. Their ride into town takes them down a dusty road lined with coffins from an overturned truck, a metaphor as visually potent as it is foreboding.
Old Carmelita’s funeral is the opening salvo of “Bacurau,” a raucous open-air party where we meet everyone from the local DJ (Jr. Black) to the schoolteacher (Wilson Rabelo) to the aged troubadour (Carlos Francisco) to the town’s doctor, Domingas, a majestic old bruja played by Sonia Braga, a one-time movie sex symbol turned wise cinematic elder. Also back in town is Pacote (Thomas Aquino), a revolutionary so celebrated that he has a top ten list of his assassinations on Youtube.
All these characters are quickly introduced and just as quickly indelible, and the town’s community spirit feels like a lifeline, especially to any viewers locked down at home. Strange events proliferate: The town appears to have vanished off Google Maps, and small UFOs appear in the air. They’re being watched, but by whom, and to what purpose? A sense of bloody threat gathers like a storm cloud.
Who’s the enemy? Is it the district’s mayor (Thardelly Lima), an oily fat cat with a flatbed truck full of mood-inhibiting drugs to keep the villagers placated? Is it the paramilitary couple (Karine Teles and Antonio Saboia) posing as backcountry bikers? Maybe it’s the crew of high-fiving American mercenaries up in the hills, a team overseen by a jaded German martinet (Udo Kier, up to his bloody old tricks). Or are the unseen forces whispering commands into the mercenaries’ earpieces the ones who are truly pulling the strings? Each of them and all, the film implies, while insisting that no conspiracy theory is too far out if it’s right.
There’s more than a touch of spaghetti western to “Bacurau,” as well as a share of Gabriel García Márquez and a side of Che Guevara. Veiled push does come to bloody shove eventually, and the citizens of Bacurau prove more than ready to the task of defending their town/country/world, with the help of a legendary rebel down from the hills (a wild-eyed Silvero Pereira) and their own gory ingenuity. The movie’s honest enough to hint that this may be the first battle of many and that our heroes don’t stand much of a chance of winning the war.
“Bacurau” has been written and directed by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho; the former has a lot of production design and one feature (unreleased here) under his belt, while the latter is one of the rising treasures of Brazilian cinema. Mendonça’s two earlier features, “Neighboring Sounds” (2012) and “Aquarius” (2016) — also with Sonia Braga — are funny, mysterious, powerful tales of locals fighting urban renewal in the director’s home city of Recife.
The new film ports his sensibility out to the middle of nowhere — a.k.a. the beating heart of Brazil — and keeps the mystery and whacked-out humor while upping the embattled populist fury by geometric degrees. “Bacurau” functions as a “weird western” (according to Wikipedia, that’s an actual genre), an armed community potluck, and a cry of defiance from a populace ground down by decades of corrupt presidents, local politicians, and US interventions. There’s a reason this movie was a critical and popular success in Brazil: It resonates. And despite the beauty of the weathered local faces this movie celebrates, it resonates for anyone, anywhere, watching it. “What do they call the inhabitants of Bacurau?” a young boy is asked. “People!” he responds. Just so.
Written and directed by Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho. Starring Bárbara Colen, Thomas Aquino, Sonia Braga, Udo Kier. In Portuguese and English, with English subtitles. Available for streaming rental until April 2 at kinonow.com/bacurau-coolidge. 131 minutes. Unrated (as R: graphic violence, sexual content, language, brief graphic nudity).