Bacurau is a 2019 Brazilian film directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles. Set in a near-future Brazil, it focuses on Teresa coming home to the town of Bacurau after her grandmother’s death, and encountering a sinister succession of events that mobilizes all townspeople. It won the Jury Prize in Cannes. Learn more about where to watch it here.
This post contains a few spoilers.
One of the most common answers we give as Brazilians to outsiders is “no, we don’t speak Spanish”. When we talk about the Latinx community, we talk about people who are united by a common bond, who speak the same language, who share a part of an unifying identity. When I joined Las Musas, a wonderful group of Latinx authors promoting their work, one of my friends asked me: “How do you see yourself in this community? Isn’t it strange, seeing yourself as a Latina?”
The answer is: it is and it isn’t.
Latinxs, as a category, was something created by outsiders to fit all of Latin America in the same place, and it fails to acknowledge our individual struggles, our individual identities. When I started writing in English, I began to acknowledge myself as part of the Latinx community, because for everyone in the USA, for everyone in this industry I’m trying to be a part of, it’s who I was.
The thing about being Latinx is that it’s full of intersections, and especially being Brazilian. I have not immigrated to the USA, I still live in my country. To everyone in the USA, I’m part of a marginalized group. In Brazil, I’m white and middle class, privileges I acknowledge daily in my life. Both these things are true, because it depends on perspective. It depends on the narrative, and expectations from others.
Bacurau is a Brazilian movie who refuses to give in to other’s expectations. It refuses to be anything but its own thing, and that’s what makes it wonderful. It’s what makes it Brazilian.
Bacurau is a genre-bending movie by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Julio Dornelles. They’re both Brazilian, but also from the Northeast of Brazil. Brazil is a big country, and these distinctions matter. The region you were born, your race, your social class, everything is a key part of your identity and how you navigate the world. And in the small town reality of the fictional Bacurau, every person, even with their differences, share the same perspective.
The film begins with Teresa coming home for her grandmother’s funeral, in a truck that brings water into town. The times are dangerous, police conflict with wanted men on the roads, an accident with a pile of coffins. Teresa brings home more medicine to a small population no bigger than 250 people, who depend on another town’s mayor to bring them supplies, a mayor who has never cared about them. And so, through the eyes of the population of Bacurau, we see as things change and become more dangerous. First, it stops appearing on the maps. Then the water supply truck is hit, the wi-fi and cellphone signal stops working. And lastly, strangers come into town, setting in motion a series of events where the whole town must come together to defend itself.
Bacurau’s speculative elements are subtle. They appear in the form of a UFO, breaking the landscape of the town, a drone in the air surveilling its victims. They appear through the news and the TV, where they announce public executions and criminal hunts nationwide, a tear in Brazil’s fabric as the country is split in factions. It’s in a futuristic, slightly dystopian country, but in its core, it still feels familiar—the language they speak, the DJ commanding parties in the open air and also making funeral announcements, the schoolchildren all wearing flipflops. It still feels like my grandmother’s town, small and remote, where the old ladies sit down on the sidewalk to gossip, where there’s only one or two doctors, where horses are a sight as common as cars in big cities.
However, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t use those elements in the best way possible during the narrative. The appearance of the UFO, which is in fact a drone, the stampede of horses in the early hours of morning, the small seed given to its inhabitants to swallow that makes them see things. They don’t require explanation, they don’t require a greater context but what it shows us in the story—they create the atmosphere. They create the feeling inherent to science fiction and fantasy. And when the directors take a turn blending western, thriller and drama all in one in the final scenes in the clash of hunters vs. hunted, it grips you from the beginning and doesn’t let you go. Even in their use of these elements, Bacurau doesn’t give in to expectations. It doesn’t use the easier elements or morality common to North American and European narratives that everyone expects to see, when the violence is meant as shock value to its audience, or that it’s only there for showcasing the bad guys vs. good, or even the forgiveness and meek acceptance that is expected once they’re attacked. The violence, when used, recalls the trauma of the colonization of Brazil’s past and its eternal perpetration by hands of other countries and even our own people. Bacurau stays, at its core, Brazilian.
It also doesn’t shy away from harder, controversial topics. Bacurau is a story about a group of people trying to survive outsiders who came to hunt them for sport, without having the means or understanding of why this is happening to them. The outsiders are mostly Americans, a couple of Europeans are in the mix. They all share a love of guns. They all share a love of a violence that they believe it’s owed to them. They came to Bacurau to have fun, to hunt, and to assert themselves as being superior. Bacurau doesn’t matter to them. It could be just about any other town in the backward of Brazil or Peru or Chile, and to them, it would have been the same. They claim this violence as their own.
This resistance itself is a part of Brazilian culture. We were a colonized country, whose people were murdered and whose riches were stolen, whose country was built on slavery. A country that is still deeply traumatized by its past and more often than not, refuses to acknowledge it. There has always been violence from countries who consider themselves as developed. Just this month, while every country in the world is fighting a battle against Covid-19, Brazi’s supplies (ventilators and masks) were commandeered by the USA, leaving us with nothing. Bacurau’s reality may be more literal, in a way that the hunt happens with guns and people, but it’s a violence many countries know well, a violence perpetrated by decades of imperialism.
Still, Brazil and other colonized countries find a way to resist. Masks and ventilators were ordered through a boat in Ethiopia to escape the USA’s and Germany’s radars and get the equipment safely without it being stolen. Phenomenons like the Cangaço, a Brazilian northeastern social movement of the twentieth century where people came in bands to resist and fight back against big landowners and their slavery. Bacurau is a Brazilian story because it’s a story of resistance when every other force in the world is against you, sometimes even your own people.
The outsiders have help. “Local contractors”, as they are called, people who facilitated this hunt. It’s not clear if it’s a game or reality show, but in the end, it does not matter. Killing is worth points. Violence is rewarded. There are two Brazilians who help, Brazilians who are so eager to demonstrate the fact that they’re not like the people in Bacurau. Because they come from the South, because they come from a richer region, because they’re white. And the movie has them state that. They also think they’re better.
The white Brazilians say “we are more like you”, and all that the outsiders do is laugh. Because even then, it can’t possibly be true. Because the definition, in the end, comes from the outside. How can they be like the others, if they’re all Brazilians? It’s an interesting contrast, and one that the movie does beautifully. These people believe they are better than the others, but to the outsiders, they are nothing. They are killed, because in the end, it’s always about the bodycount. Us vs. Them. And we’re never going to be one of them, not to the ones who get to define it.
And one of the most beautiful things about Bacurau is that it doesn’t care about other’s perspective. It doesn’t care about outsiders, and it’s about subverting everyone’s expectations of you. Like many thematic movies to come out this year about identity and class struggle (Knives Out, Ready or Not, Parasite), it’s about presenting yourself as who you are, surviving, and subverting expectations and what others think. The speculative elements used in the narrative only reinforce that. It doesn’t matter why the hunters are doing it, whether it’s for a reality show or a game or some other reasons, or why Brazil has become a dystopia where one of the nation’s biggest criminal is hunted only because he’s clearly gay. They are background elements used to reinforce the main message, that resistance is what we’ve always done. Refusing to fit into a category given to you by people who do not understand your history and where you come from. Bacurau is at its most mesmerizing when it refuses to acknowledge the perspective of anyone but the people who belong there.
Bacurau is revolutionary because it feels like home. It hits in the hardest places, and also offers comfort, because the violence that is owed is not given. Bacurau resists, with its identity, with who they are, and with each other. And it feels like a comfort to be able to watch something, and not have someone else’s imposition, someone else’s definition in which we must fit.
E quem nasce em Bacurau é o que? is one of the most iconic lines of the movie. It’s a simple question. “What are the people of Bacurau called?” It’s a question of identity, and one that the movie answers in a both beautiful and uncomplicated way, turning the question back on itself. É gente.
They are people.
Laura Pohl is a Brazilian writer who lives in São Paulo. She likes writing messages in caps lock, quoting Hamilton, and obsessing about Star Wars. When not taking pictures of her dog, she can be found discussing alien conspiracy theories. She has not crashed any cars or spaceships—yet. She is the author of The Last 8 and The First 7. Visit her online at her website.