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Defiance in the Face of Imperialism: A Review of Bacurau

by Brant Roberts
“An explicit allegory to antifascist resistance and anticapitalist values, Bacurau illustrates what it means for poor Brazilians to fight against a national comprador ruling class whose politics and interests are aligned with American hegemony.”

“[Fascism] is the attempt to solve the problems of production and exchange with machine guns and pistol-shots.” – Antonio Gramsci, “Italy and Spain”, L’Ordine Nuovo (1921)

“They have the centrifugal force of the desert: they repel, scatter, and disperse.” – Euclides da Cunha on the topography of the sertão[1]

Warning: This review contains spoilers

Bacurau portrays a small village in the northeast corner of Brazil where people live communally and have established strong social bonds. The first half of the film feels like an anthropological documentary portraying the town and the way everyone lives, while the second half  unleashes violence on the town from the outside by American mercenaries. It is not a typical genre-forward film, rather it seeks to combine elements of spaghetti-westerns, dystopian sci-fi, and 1970s-style scene transitions with shots of the sertão that remind the viewer of the early Star Wars trilogy and an attention to the human condition echoing Akira Kurosawa’s movies.

The presence of the sertão is heavy in the film, it feels inescapable with the dense vegetation that floods the semi-desert surrounding the village. The Brazilian sertão refers to the backlands of the subcontinent’s northeastern region where the War of Canudos took place in 1896 and where many more rebellions have taken place since. It feels all the more appropriate that a film about working class Brazilians resisting attacks from both elements of the state and imperialist outsiders was filmed there.

The Brazilian sertão

That Bacurau is shot in a historic quilombo cannot be overlooked. Quilombos were  areas where enslaved Africans fled to in order to escape and fight slavery across Brazil, as well as to establish sovereign territorial rights in order to govern themselves. However, Bacurau as a modern quilombo comes across as more diverse with all shades of people, including transgender people, making up much of the village. Essentially, the quilombo reflects the Brazilian working class as a whole.

There is a small museum in Bacurau where the people’s historic rebellions and the history of their founding is kept. The people’s history is not forgotten and, later in the film, the museum literally becomes a place of resistance against the invaders. Bacurau’s museum portrays a community who has kept its memory alive, no matter the cost. 

In a scene towards the end of the movie the invaders see an old police car riddled with bullet holes sitting in the middle of the brush. That no police or government authorities are ever seen in Bacurau indicates the style of politics governing the village – direct democracy with the elders’ voices carrying the most sway. One can easily imagine a world without police when watching Bacurau. Although it is a very spiritual community, the church is only used for storage which indicates that there is not a priest who politically directs the people on behalf of God. 

Only the local political boss, Tony, who is running for mayor can be seen as the closest representation of government power. Corrupt and overwhelmingly disliked by the people, he attempts to give the community a lot of old books, expired foods and addictive medicines – a great analogy for much of the Brazilian ruling class.

The film begins with the lines “a few years later” putting the viewer in an immediate state of confusion – a few years later from now? Is the film portraying the conclusion and wrapping up towards the beginning? This is one of the many ways the filmmakers put the viewers in an uncomfortable situation, at no point in the film are we ever sure of what will happen next other than the escalating tension which must inevitably result in violence. For the average movie goer this approach is extremely unorthodox. However, it seems clear that this approach is meant to portray Bacurau a few years after the present political juncture in Brazil whose future is far from easy to predict.

Rituals are important to the life and survival of the people of Bacurau. As one of the many protagonists in the film enter into the town, a funeral is taking place for the village matriarch Carmelita. They carry her casket through the town slowly singing an ominous song about phantoms that haunt them while ingesting a psychedelic drug allowing them to confront death. The mysterious drug is consumed both in this scene and before they are attacked at the end of the movie. There is no clear reason why they consume this drug other than as a ritual. The same reason goes for the later performance of the capoeira before they face off against the imperialist invaders.

The spaghetti-western themes come alive throughout the film. In one instance, the first invaders roll into town on dirt bikes and step off of them like cowboys getting off their horses, causing the rest of the town to look at them disapprovingly as they enter into a small store to order drinks. Another obvious spaghetti-western theme arises later on when the horses of a neighboring ranch  across town, signaling the ominous presence of a conspiracy against the village.

The second half of the film features more prominently a group of aspiring American mercenaries whose psychotic murderous fantasies are constantly on display. We find out only later why they have come to Bacurau and on whose behalf. Their psychosis seems to be controlled throughout the film by the ear-pieces they wear that ring loudly before they murder others, as if the ear-pieces represent their unconsciousness.

An explicit allegory to antifascist resistance and anticapitalist values, Bacurau illustrates what it means for poor Brazilians to fight against a national comprador ruling class whose politics and interests are aligned with American hegemony. The cunning of the people in their resistance and their ability to take advantage of their invaders’ weaknesses is admirable; aside from the couple who try to escape Bacurau and are killed by the Americans, the lesson of this scene being that you cannot run from fascism, you must be prepared to face it head-on.

A few reviews referred to Bacurau as an anticolonial film but this interpretation rests on the assumption that the American invaders arrived to instill a new regime over the people or murder them all and build a new civilization on top of it, yet this is not why they have arrived as colonialism is not what is at work here. Describing the movie as anti-imperialist is a better description given that the people are resisting destruction at the hands of imperialists on behalf of the local political boss who may be a stand-in for current president Jair Bolsanaro.

While there is a litany of ideas Bacurau could stand for, the line that Bacurau’s patriarch says while distributing food is the same lesson we should take from this movie, “Take what you need and share.”


Footnotes:

[1] Euclides da Cunha, Backlands: The Canudos Campaign (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), 45.


About the Reviewer: Brant Roberts is based out of Houston and is a member of the editorial collective Houston Review of Books. His writings have appeared in Marx and Philosophy Review of BooksThe Daily Cougar, and Threshold Magazine.

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