Film & TV
UncategorizedEmail This Article Print This Article

Go In Peace: On erasure and the neo-Western politics of resistance in Filho and Dornelles’ Bacurau

Kaleem M. Hawa

The Scarecrow (The Half-Wit) (1940), Candido Portinari. The Mercer Art Gallery.

Our film opens with space. Outer space, that is, the Google Earth orb spinning and then spiraling, from dark to sky, landing finally on our protagonist, Teresa (Bárbara Colen) staring out the window, flanked on her left by Pacote (Thomas Aquino), driving their water truck along the dusty roads of the Brazilian sertão. She is returning to her old home after a long absence. Soon, they have passed the sign, “Bacurau, 17km: se for, vá na paz.” If you go, go in peace.

Teresa’s grandmother and Bacurau matriarch Carmelita (Lia de Itamaracá) has passed away, and the celebration of her life sees the town’s revelry lasting into the night. With a flurry of energy, we are introduced to the film’s peculiar cast of characters, the most striking being Domingas (Sônia Braga), a disgruntled and drunk frontier doctor hurling epithets at the funeral for her best friend to cope with the pain. The townspeople are soon confronted with Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima), a womanising politician up for re-election, who serves as the de facto emissary for a regional government whose new dam has led to a water shortage in Bacurau.

The ineptitude of the bureaucratic state in the wild is an animating principle of the neo-Western: these are townspeople who’ve weathered the tyranny of governments who see their commitment to a life in the desert as inconvenient as it is immutable.

In this way, the beginning of the film lulls you into a sense of familiarity, dovetailing with elements of the director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s previous efforts, Neighbouring Sounds (2012) and Aquarius (2016), and their almost-ethnographic study of communities under pressure.

But enter Michael (Udo Kier), and everything changes. He leads a gang of white Americans who have come to Bacurau to hunt humans for sport, in a bloody safari that takes its inspiration from Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932). They start killing the residents, scoring points for each body, leaving the townspeople no choice but to mount a defence, lest they be eradicated. These white characters elicit little sympathy and convey limited interiority. They’re violent caricatures, and this is deliberate: how often would we bat an eye at a canonical Western employing similarly reductive depictions of its Indigenous co-habitants? And while the film’s descent into spaghetti Western is telegraphed early on, it feels no less jarring; the heavy-handed Sergio Leone call-backs do little to prepare the uninitiated for the bloodbath to come.

Directed by Filho and his longtime production designer Juliano Dornelles, who receives co-director and co-writer credit, Bacurau (2019) is a hectic genre fusion, a psychotropic thrill ride that blurs the vision of the audience until you feel the characters, fearful and flowing and jacked up on an unnamed hallucinatory seed ingested throughout.

The gaudiness of the film’s colour, and its ‘tropicalism’ of various influences, are staples of the Brazilian ‘Cinema Novo’ of the sixties and seventies. The directors’ use of 1970s Panavision anamorphic lenses to depict the sertão, the remote north-eastern enclave from which Filho and Dornelles hail, lends grain to the town’s pageantry and soul, while the swipe fades and John Carpenter-esque electronica give the film its retro power. Throw in a UFO, some convivial beheadings, and Lunga (Silvero Pereira), a flamboyant cangaço bandit realised as a sort-of camp Malcolm X, and you’re left with a surrealist trip.

But in spite of all this, the Jury Prize-winning Bacurau is not a departure, really; Filho, like his British contemporary Ken Loach, is focused on communities as everything, as the sites of grave injustice and as the most effective locus for resistance against it. He’s also experimenting, and the results are mesmerising.

*

What does it look like to have your home erased from the map? Bacurau asks this, literally—the residents wake up one day to find their home deleted online—but also metaphorically, from the vantage of a community under threat.

The concept of erasure has a long history in cinema, with capitalism, technology, and colonialism serving as its most common modern catalysing tropes. Few have committed themselves to this project as fully as Elia Suleiman, a Palestinian director whose It Must Be Heaven (2019) also screened in Competition at this year’s Cannes. To Suleiman, memory is the essence of identity; when communities are removed from their contexts, when the displaced must adapt to a new way of life, the coherence of their defining story is chipped away and must be wrested from the grips of another. For the residents of Bacurau, honour for one’s history and celebration of elders like Carmelita are core tenets of a communal existence able to withstand erosion. They have this in common with the Palestinians or the First Nations, whose decades-long displacements have posed existential challenges to the maintenance of culture.

Bacurau contends that this concept of memory and remembrance is inherently radical, that in the face of an erasing force—be it a colonising power, a corrupt political system, or an imposed modernity—the act of remembrance is itself resistance. It is no surprise that in the film’s falling action, we are shown the inside of the town’s museum to its history, and the news clippings of protest and struggle that adorn its walls. This is a living museum, both used and useful, and the guns torn from its walls allow the townspeople to resist, yet again. It can be a chillingly dissociative experience for an audience to watch some of the citizens adapt so calmly to the attacks on their home, but violence is an indissoluble part of their lives, its poetics unremarkable.

The Indigenous experience of violence both in and out of cinema has been explored by many South American filmmakers, including Bolivian Jorge Sanjinés (see The Principal Enemy (1974)) and Chilean Patricio Guzmán (see The Pearl Button (2015)). In Affectual Erasure, Cynthia Margarita Tompkins traces representations of Indigenous peoples in Argentine cinema, asking how—in the context of a culture whose elimination of Indigeneity is by design—does one declare, loudly, one’s existence?

One option is to challenge an imagined geography: the idea of the ‘unmappable sertão’ has long captured the Brazilian psyche, with its myths mirroring the frontier stories of the American West or Canadian North. Representing the sertão responsibly is therefore a balancing act. Bacurau takes care not to airbrush the poverty of its serene idyll—the drug use and sexual objectification unsentimentally on display—but it also honours the region’s ‘travessia,’ its unique medley of physical and spiritual dimensions.

As such, you can’t help but notice that the church, a cardinal institution in many South American communities, is abandoned, the building serving as a storage facility for the town. It is a reminder that places like these have had conventions imposed on them for as long as history has desired its pastoral. Instead, the ‘animist’ tradition is pervasive in Bacurau’s matriarchal society, and Carmelita’s ghost features prominently in the film’s plot. It’s a hat tip to the ‘Weird West’ oeuvre of combinatory magical realism, horror, or science fiction: she shields the film’s characters from the violence of the settlers. The living become a scarecrow for the flocking dead.

The other way to defy erasure is through resistance. For many in North America, a sociopolitical consciousness of places like Attawapiskat or Standing Rock was sadly only realised through the non-violent resistance movements spurred in the wake of their particular injustices—a reclamation that had the irony of putting these places ‘on the map’ of a Western society they preceded.

Bacurau is therefore no exception to a Brazilian cinema notable for its political inclinations: the film’s water politics reminds us of how extractive capitalism can have disastrous impacts for isolated communities. The Economist, in reviewing Bacurau, writes that President Jair Bolsonaro’s decision to subsume the Brazilian ministry of culture into a ministry of citizenship is part of an effort to recalibrate art’s purpose, to underwrite an implicit obligation to the state. Filho fires a warning shot at Bolsonaro, whose nationalist rhetoric calls for the ‘banishment’ of socialist ‘outlaws’; Bacurau’s outlaws inspire their communities, and the enlisting of social bandits like Lunga into the resistance is a ‘Cinema Novo’ favourite. Himself not one to blink, Bolsonaro—who never forgave Filho for protesting in support of his predecessor, Dilma Rousseff—has used this administration to target Filho with retaliatory legal hijinks. As we said: in Brazil, the cinema is political.

*

It is surely tempting to compare Bacurau to one of the most visible ‘revisionist Westerns’: Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012). And while the stylistic and thematic similarities are hard to shake, the conceptions of violence are different. Django sees strength in the individual, in retributive violence redeeming a disempowered agent, and affording them the agency to unshackle themselves from oppression—or, at least to enact revenge. Bacurau agrees in part, but sees the locus of that resistance in the community. Maybe this says something about the directors’ nationalities and the respective cinematic traditions from which they grow.

As you’d expect, the townspeople fight back. If a key trope of Westerns is the frontier outsiders saving the vulnerable, then Bacurau’s subject-object inversion is valuable: maybe they didn’t need saving, maybe we are the bad guys? Sure, but Filho is also not the first to flip these conventions of the larger ‘civilising project’ on their head. And so, maybe Bacurau’s real subversion is not its reimagining of the directionality of its violence, but in the reimagining of its character.

What both Bacurau and Django have in common is their attempts to subvert the racism of their predecessors. This is a seemingly futile activity. While it is in vogue to market new Westerns as exploding the genre conventions of the past, this is often driven by a misunderstanding of a Western cinema long propelled by reinventing the mythologies of its predecessors. As The New Inquiry’s Aaron Bady has argued, John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is both a first, ‘great’ Western of a canon that later reckons with it, but is also itself a response to the Westerns—dozens of which were directed by Ford himself—that came before. Westerns are both progenitors of and responses to their racism; the two are indivisible.

How so? As David Cunningham writes in Radical Philosophy:

“‘It is the tragedy of the West that was won, the West that, after all the new beginnings on the frontier, ends up conquered by the East, defeated, dead’, and in which, always lurking behind the civilizing forms of law and order, is its ‘shadow of savagery’. If the Western plays here the role of a great origin story, it does so precisely, as it does in Hegel’s account of the ‘modern bourgeois epic’, by narrating some transition from a premodern condition – the savage, lawless, but also poetic wilderness – to the more prosaic reality of the modern itself. This is to say, it is an epic form that narrates the destruction of those very conditions that make the ‘heroic’ world of the epic possible.”

But if Westerns supposedly lay the cultural groundwork for a ‘transition’ from a corporeal violence of the person to a bureaucratic violence of the state, then Bacurau is firmly uninterested in this distinction. For its victims, the difference between Brazil’s state-sanctioned violence and the vigilante violence of the American safari hobbyists is much like that between cultural violence and physical violence—irrelevant. For the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, the tools of eradication vary in manifestation—spread of disease, destruction of cultural heritage, police non-enforcement, forced sterilisation, family separation—but rarely in intention: genocide. And so, Bacurau’s modern ‘post’-colonial cinema instead ratchets up our discomfort; in the face of the erasure of one’s world, the destruction of one’s people, is violent resistance really disproportionate?

When the dust settles, there are a lot of bodies in Bacurau. The coffins line the street and the survivors congregate in the commons, surveying the wreckage. We’ve come full circle to the film’s unceremonious opener: Teresa and Pacote riding in the water truck, headed home and unsure of what is to come, coffins strewn across the road as they run roughshod over them. It’s an homage to A Fistful of Dollars (1964), the wooden boxes an inelegant omen of the ultraviolence to come.

In many ways, Bacurau’s indelicacy is a summons. Sometimes the universe manifests as senseless oppression, and the only response is to resist, unsubtly, in every way you can. Go in peace, indeed.

Kaleem M. Hawa is a doctoral candidate and Rhodes scholar at Oxford University. He attended the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where Bacurau was first screened.