The Northeast of Brazil is hardscrabble country, with a history of armed insurrection. If a wealthy group of “Most Dangerous Game” style hunters were scouting territory, they would probably skip this unruly equatorial region. Of course, the entire notion of people hunting people is a shopworn cliché that keeps getting recycled over and over, even though John Woo’s Hard Target set the standard in the early 1990s. This time, co-director-screenwriters Kleber Mendonca Filho & Juliano Dornelles try to repurpose the gimmick to score political and ideological points in Bacurau, which opens this Friday in New York.
Theresa has returned to Bacurau for her grandmother’s funeral, but decides to stays a few days to reconnect with an old flame, Pacote (“the Package”), a former reputed hired gun, with a whole YouTube highlight reel of hits attributed to him. Frankly, he isn’t even the local the invading gringos should be worried about.
Led by the mysterious German known as Michael, the gringo hunters (and their Sao Paulo accomplices) have successful blocked all GPS and removed the town from Google maps. The idea is to slowly pick off the locals one by one. However, as the descendants of rebels in the Zapatista tradition, the residents of Bacurau have survival skills in their DNA.
Bacurau is an unholy merger of art cinema and exploitation movies that fails to satisfy either audience. The film is slow to get started, but at least the leisurely funeral scenes help establish the local characters. However, once the gringos show up, the film down-shifts into a wannabe sleazy retro-thriller, but the outsiders are so dramatically outclassed, there is never any suspense regarding the outcome. Instead, viewers will just be watching their cellphones, waiting for the obvious inevitable conclusion to finally wrap itself up.
The whole point of Bacurau is to depict a struggle of have’s vs. have-not’s and Americans vs. the developing world is viscerally harsh terms. Characterization is a distant priority for Filho & Dornelles and it shows. Probably the only remotely fully dimensional character is Domingas, the village’s prickly doctor, who has a rather problematic relationship with her partner (played with somewhat intriguing high-handed aloofness by Sonia Braga). Naturally, the gringos are the broadest stereotypes possible. Sadly, that includes Michael, played by the great Udo Kier, who tries to chew the scenery as best he can, but Filho & Dornelles never give him adequate space to get his villainous thing on.
At one point, Bacurau was under consideration for Brazil’s official Oscar submission, but wiser heads opted for Karim Aïnouz’s Invisible Life instead. It is hard to see who Bacurau was meant for, aside from the leftist amen corner that will uncritically hail anything that reflects their class-warfare, anti-American prejudices. Not recommended, Bacurau opens this Friday (3/6) in New York, at the IFC Center.