Do you know where you were a year ago? All of our cursed little social media sites are good at giving us reminders of where we were on whatever day of whatever year ago. It’s an odd, out-of-body experience. Regardless of photographic evidence, I can rarely if ever place myself back somewhere, so I try to avoid the ego-driven nostalgia for self and otherwise just watch this British guy do cooking videos on TikTok.
Recently, however, I searched back through my messy inbox for one specific bit of information: what night the film Bacurau screened at last year’s New York Film Festival. A note in my planner just says DINNER. And what was I doing the first week of March when it ran, a few showings a day, at a theater near my apartment? My calendar is filled with vague social reminders, all of which I wish I had brushed aside to see Bacurau on a big screen. I have spent the past few weeks sitting on my couch, wrapped in some combination of blankets, playing catch up with this year’s non-cinema cinema experiences. And as I watched in intrigue, in horror, in disgust, and then in joy over the course of Bacurau’s runtime, all I could think was: How did I fuck up not seeing this in a theater?
Bacurau is a movie, dammit. A real movie movie. It’s not the only one of its ilk to come out this year, released digitally so viewers could enjoy safely from their homes, but it was the first viewing experience I had in 2020 that made me yearn for the communal joy of a theatrical experience. Forget tentpoles, forget blockbusters—this is the blockbuster. For a few months, Bacurau idled on my Criterion Channel watchlist, my mouse hovering over it like, “Wait, what is this?” And indeed, to describe Bacurau doesn’t really do it justice: The joy of the watch is the way in which it reveals itself (a flower opening towards the sun, a body spewing blood), but I’ll do my best.
Directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Bacurau (streaming via Kino Lorber or Criterion Channel) is titled after the fictional town in which it takes place, a settlement of 100 or so people living in relative harmony with one another in eastern Brazil. They have a shop, some farms, a stable, a museum. There’s a doctor (played by Sônia Braga). There are sex workers. There’s a guy I can only describe as the town DJ. Really, what more could you want? The film cleverly introduces itself as a “returning home” narrative for Teresa (Bárbara Colen), whose grandmother, the town matriarch, has passed away. She kindles—or rekindles?—a romance with local hunk Pacote (Thomas Aquino). She makes a promise to her father (Wilson Rabelo) that she’s going to stay. There’s a sense of municipal collectivity especially in the face of the sniveling nearby mayoral candidate, Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima), who is eager to buy their votes through food deliveries and perhaps also through the withholding of fresh water. The pacing is otherwise slow, thoughtful; Mendonça and Dornelles give you just enough time in Bacurau to grow to love it. The slow pace of life, the stray dogs.
Things can’t go well forever—this is the movies, after all—and soon a handful of inexplicable events set in motion a horrible plot to destroy not only the town of Bacurau but everything it stands for in its solidarity. First, the town disappears from online maps. There’s a mysterious drone hovering overhead. The phone service goes out. A bunch of horses are set loose. And then the body count: Villagers are picked off one by one. The origin of their enemies—a group of mercenaries, led by a silly, menacing Udo Kier—is unknown and unsubtle to great effect. Does it really matter who the town is up against? It matters that they’re threatened, period. In a market oversaturated with villain arcs, Malificents and what have you, the blunt brutishness of the mercenary band is refreshingly simplistic. It’s almost like the movie goes to war with itself, with movies in general. The small town versus the blockbuster, the return of the prodigal daughter versus the slash-and-burn slobs, the political allegory versus the revenge flick, the automatic weapon versus the machete. It’s a western! It’s speculative fiction! It’s political! It’s romantic! It’s bombastic!
I know it sounds impossible but Bacurau is a movie that just ticks every box. It’s at once meditative and ruthless, quaint and extreme, nuanced and corny as hell. Too often it seems movies are straining to put one thought in my head, let alone dozens of them. I never once got ahead of the film, never knew where it was going to go. It goes above and beyond having a get-the-gang-together scene in favor of the superior and underutilized get-the-town-outlaw-down-from-his-tower-of-isolation scene. The less that is said about Lunga (the extremely cool Silvero Pereira) the better—he’s a surprise worth not spoiling—but I have been googling mullets ever since I watched.
What higher praise can I give Bacurau other than it made me, a huge baby, root for violence? Its final half hour is undeniably cathartic and joyful, a testament to collectivism and also getting one over on all these fucking guys. In the theater I would have whooped and cheered. In the home, I was smiling a big stupid grin. I watched remotely with a few friends, sending a few texts throughout, up until the final act in which we sat, silent, enrapt, phones tossed afar and facedown. As the credits rolled it was like my whole living room exhaled. I want you to watch Bacurau not only because it’s great, but because when you watch you’ll get close to the best feeling in the world—walking out of a dark theater back into the sun.