The rural Brazilian siege film Bacurau feels like an essential transmission trying to wrangle some sense out of a country’s chaos and despair. It is a directorial collaboration between Kleber Mendonça Filho, following up his wonderful Aquarius (2016), and his long-time production designer, Juliano Dornelles, who together have created an experience that is a constant, mutating surprise. Despite an introductory scene of young female doctor returning to her village to deliver supplies that quickly sketches a region in Brazil “a few years from now” whose water supply has been cut off, whose roads are inoperable, where a local bandit seems to be at large, and where the government presence is limited to a shilling mayor hated by the population, the exact situation in Bacurau or indeed in Brazil is cryptic and suggestive. Clearly it is analogous to now, although in what specific way it is hard to say. But its state can be read in the town’s needs: food, medicine...and coffins.
When a water supply truck arrives with bullet holes in its sides and the family at a local ranch are found murdered, what feels like the future as a wild west turns more directly threatening and ominous. The tone, already prickly and a bit off-kilter, goes full crazy and even somewhat darkly comic with the revelation of a group of outsider mercenaries, a white gang of armed killers expressing their desire to attack the town. They use only vintage weapons, refer to achieving a score for killing, and their hopped-up motivation seems a cross between “The Most Dangerous Game” and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. In the film’s most obvious tip to insanity, the group is led by Udo Kier as a kind of deranged game warden. It soon becomes clear the town of Bacurau is under attack. Suddenly the wide cinemascope photography, retro wipe edits, and small gestures of psychotropic sensations (flashes of visions, dreamy dissolves) start to make sense: This is the brutal dystopian present of the 1970s and ‘80s genre films like those by John Carpenter, transmuted to a very real Brazilian countryside.
In fact, the local school is named after “Prof João Carpinteira,” and the maestro’s “Night” piece from his Lost Themes album appears on the soundtrack as the ultimate gesture: not one of fandom, but as a sign that the shit’s going down—what we thought bad is going to get much worse. The town, gathering a reserve we don’t initially expect, pulls together to defend itself, as if the seven samurai had never showed up, and the Bacurau citizens acquits themselves with shocking force. If Lav Diaz’s recent slow-paced but emotionally raging films criticizing the Duterte government were funneled through popular genre, they might feel something like this. The result is something very violent—and violence that is a combination of fear and absurdity. The situation it creates is patently ridiculous and makes this silliness obvious—yet its results, seen in the gruesome bloodshed, are no less affecting. It is satire and terror in one, an ungainly mix that may not fully work, but I’m not sure it has to. It just has to communicate that something is very, very wrong.
I sat down with Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles at the Plages Majestic at their film's Cannes premiere to talk about their shoot, the film's relevance to today's Brazil, and film inspirations.
NOTEBOOK: Can you could tell me about the region you set the film in, the town in Brazil? It felt very geographically specific in the way you set up the topography of the drama, coming in from above with a satellite view, seeing the landscape, seeing where the river is, and the bridge—you lay it out spatially very clearly.
KLEBER MENDONÇA FILHO: This is a very classic opening, so many films begin from above and then zoom in. I remember the opening of so many films—West Side Story, it’s the same thing. But it took us months looking for the right locations because it had to be a very basic, classic western, one-street situation. And we kept finding places that were always bigger than we needed. In one shot, you [had to] understand how the whole community works. A church, a school, houses, maybe a bar. So it took a long time to find the location. We actually wanted to shoot in the state—
JULIANO DORNELLES: —we gave special attention for the brothel.
MENDONÇA FILHO: For the what?
DORNELLES: For the brothel!
MENDONÇA FILHO: Oh yeah! [Laughter.]
MENDONÇA FILHO: We actually looked for locations in Pernambuco, which is where we come from… we come from Recife, which is in the state of Pernambuco. We couldn’t find any. Then we went up to Paraíba, which is the next state, and then finally in Rio Grande do Norte, which is three states up… and once we found it, we found the other locations. We were very lucky, we had the empty reservoir for the dam, where [the bandit] Lunga [Silvero Pereira] is. And we found amazing faces also, in that region, and great people we worked with.
NOTEBOOK: Did a lot of the casting for secondary or tertiary characters come from that region?
DORNELLES: Yes, yes, yes. We did a very long and wide research. We looked for those faces in many little villages near the city we were based in. So, it was very good work from our crew, and they brought these people to our base, and gave them exercises without taking the spontaneity of them, because we chose them by the way that they already were.
MENDONÇA FILHO: Because, you know, you hear stories about films and about how people work [with locals] and we wanted to avoid some of the mistakes that we know are made. We never changed anyone, we never made them say anything that they would never say or would not feel natural saying. We just fell in love with the way they were, and they’re in the film. Sometimes somebody was so amazing that we even developed a scene just for him to be in the scene. It was a very special moment, and I can tell you also that some of these people, they were normally—in their lives—they were outcasts of their communities. Sometimes some gay woman or some gay man was an outcast, and for three months they were… this is something they told us, that they were respected in a way they had never been respected… [starts tearing up] I’m sorry, it’s kind of a very moving experience.
DORNELLES: [Also starts tearing up] It was a very intense experience. A human experience.
MENDONÇA FILHO: This is kind of related to our initial motivations to do this film. [Still crying] This is ridiculous! I’m sorry! [Laughter.]
DORNELLES: [To Mendonça Filho] Why would you do this?
MENDONÇA FILHO: [Laughs] I don’t know, I just remember them and it’s just…
DORNELLES: [Both crying] This is crazy.
NOTEBOOK: What was so touching about this experience for you?
MENDONÇA FILHO: You come for three months or for four months and you disrupt people’s lives, and then you realize that you’re not disrupting their lives at all. You’re actually giving them something that they really needed then, and they didn’t know they needed then. So that’s why it was so special.
NOTEBOOK: I imagine not just on the production side, but that it’s also a film about a town coming together and holding its own.
MENDONÇA FILHO: It’s actually that. And they understood it from the get-go. So it was a very intense, even some of the more violent parts. Because, of course, violence can be very technical in filmmaking, but the scene at the end of the film where [the town] confront[s] the mayor: everybody witnessed the scene, and I don’t think many of them were ready to see that. And they fully understood the social and political implications of what that scene meant. Particularly when Pacote [Thomas Aquino], goes up to the mayor and messes his hair up and just slaps him a bit. And they were really like: holy shit, yeah! Fuck yeah. Yes! Do it. It was a very intense moment.
DORNELLES: In the old culture, from regions like that in the countryside, giving a man a slap in the face is…
MENDONÇA FILHO: In a hierarchy…
DORNELLES: Yes, it’s even worse than killing him.
MENDONÇA FILHO: It’s a public humiliation. Coming to someone that would never normally be publicly humiliated like that. So it’s a kind of cathartic moment. And in the script, we never thought of him being executed with a shot to the head, it would always be something more morally destructive.
NOTEBOOK: And socially destructive as well.
MENDONÇA FILHO: Yeah.
NOTEBOOK: Obviously this is a very political film, but as a non-Brazilian I wonder how much of that is on the surface or underneath. Do you see this as a subversive film or is this film really stating facts, very upfront?
MENDONÇA FILHO: It’s very early to tell. The reaction from Brazilian observers in Cannes… I think they were very excited and frightened by the film.
DORNELLES: But I have a very solid impression that it’s going to be completely different when we show the film in Brazil.
MENDONÇA FILHO: I can give you a very small detail in the film, which you would never catch. The communicating [translation] device that they American [mercenary] girl uses, she set the device to Portuguese from Portugal. She doesn’t know there’s a difference between Portuguese from Brazil and Portuguese from Portugal. So, that’s one little detail. When I did Neighboring Sounds, I thought the film was almost parochial, because it’s set on the street where I used to live and one of the locations is my own apartment, and my question was: will anyone care for this? Will it make any sense? And the film traveled very well and seemed to be universal, and I was just telling our publicist that talking to the press this morning for me was like a masterclass, and I was like a student. You know, I talked to Russians, and Serbians, and Germans, and Spanish, and now you! And I actually have a question for you! Where are you from?
NOTEBOOK: I’m from the U.S., from New York.
MENDONÇA FILHO: So, we’re actually learning, the film seems to hit quite well at a universal level… However! In Brazil it will be decoded with more… it’s almost like the 35mm prints that had Dolby Digital encoded in them, and Dolby SR and Dolby Mono. So, if you have mono equipment, it will play well, but if you have Dolby Digital you’ll get six tracks. Brazil will get the six tracks.
DORNELLES: I like that.
NOTEBOOK: I presume you’ll be most excited to present this film to a Brazilian audience, despite its universality? To me, this film was like a punch in the gut. It speaks of the moment, so even if its allegorical situation seems to be timeless and you could make a film like this thirty years ago.
DORNELLES: Mankind has had oppression since the beginning.
MENDONÇA FILHO: Yeah, but there’s a crazy fucked up thing with the film right now, which is that last week the government just announced that they are cutting 30% of [funding for] public universities. And then the film has a scene where this huge truck dumps a ton of books in front of a school. So the Brazilians just went: how did you do this?
DORNELLES: And those things kept going because, the thing with the map [in the film, a teacher and his students can no longer find their town on satellite maps], of taking Bacurau off the map, a few weeks ago, the government erased from the maps environmentally protected areas. That’s crazy!
MENDONÇA FILHO: So there is no protection for that area anymore because it’s not even on the map.
NOTEBOOK: It kind of begs a question that was going through my mind during the film, why are the attackers outsider, white Americans and not either an international cadre or all Brazilians or…
MENDONÇA FILHO: We have Brazilians associated with them.
NOTEBOOK: Yes, the couple who collaborate with the the outsiders.
DORNELLES: But what we are talking about is that we are Westerners. In the global situation in history we’ve had many moments of someone coming from one place and going to another to invade, and to take those…
MENDONÇA FILHO: But I have to give you back the question, as an American does it feel awkward in some way, the film? Does it feel like it’s an all-out attack on American society?
NOTEBOOK: No. For me personally, I’m so used to the American presence internationally in movies—in many different ways, whether we’re invading somewhere, or summoning a special team, or we’re making a rogue, Jason Bourne-type movie—that the presence of a random unauthorized group of Americans in another country doing shit seems like a normal narrative occurrence for me...for an American film. But it’s rare for me to see that being included in a film that’s not being told from an American perspective. That is what rings very strangely. If this was a movie about an American team going to Brazil and doing shit, I’d be like: yeah, of course, I’m sure we do stuff like that.
DORNELLES: We tried to get aware of it, a little bit, and think about western films: classical, American. They’d put the Indians as the invaders. So what would it be like if we change who is doing the invaders? It was an idea that we thought was interesting to do. But we don’t treat the Indians as the classical westerns do, we only see them on top of the mountain, and they only shout, they don’t speak. They are dehumanized a little bit, in my opinion. We go close to the invaders in this film, we hear what they say.
MENDONÇA FILHO: Yeah but it’s really impossible to avoid. You know the scene with the little kid [who is shot by the mercenaries]? It seemed it was impossible for us, even when we wrote the script, for us to avoid thinking of the scene in The Searchers where the girl is taken. Because the Indian, he comes very close to the shot—it’s a very startling cut. And in the same way, there is this shape, and now we go into Assault on Precinct 13 territory, and this shape comes in. The images that keep coming to our minds and they are all American, in a way. And we love it, we love American cinema. We’re very curious to know how Americans would see the film, if it would be uncomfortable. Because it probably is, and [this feeling] just goes with the film. What you said I will actually use now in my future answers. [Laughter.]
DORNELLES: We never thought of Bacurau as an anti-American film.
NOTEBOOK: No, I don’t feel it’s anti-American either. Parts of it are anti-imperialist.
DORNELLES: Yes, it’s history! It’s white male. White male. It’s all about the white male. This shit gotta end.
NOTEBOOK: So you were just talking about John Ford movies, American movies, Carpenter movies, but did you pull from Brazilian cinema as well?
MENDONÇA FILHO: Oh yes.
NOTEBOOK: Tell me about some movies, because I know the American movies, but I don’t know…
DORNELLES: Brazilian cinema from the ‘60s: Glauber Rocha, Roberto Santos, Nelson Pereira dos Santos…
MENDONÇA FILHO: Roberto Santos had a film in competition in Cannes in ‘65, I think. It’s a beautiful film.
DORNELLES: The Hour and Turn of Augusto Matraga. You should see this film, it’s wonderful.
MENDONÇA FILHO: And we used the music from that film, when Pacote is driving the Jeep with the two dead guys. And the music that ends the film—the same piece of music. So it’s a very emotional use of that music because it’s a film that belongs in our hearts.
DORNELLES: And there’s another background, another very deep background, about the songwriter and the guy who sings in the film, Geraldo Vandré. Vandré is a musician from the 60s that fought against the dictatorship in Brazil, and then they arrested him and tortured him, and now he lives his life writing military music, and praising the army. Can you believe that? He was tortured, they killed his family in the next room. He heard his children screaming and being tortured, physically tortured and mentally tortured, and now he writes military marches.
MENDONÇA FILHO: The effects of violence on someone, it’s always a very disturbing human development.
NOTEBOOK: Why did you want to make this film so particularly violent? This movie still stands out as making a choice to be more than an action movie, it’s gruesome. The violence hurts.
MENDONÇA FILHO: I have to say I’m surprised that’s one of the reactions, I thought there was just violence, not hyper-violence.
DORNELLES: I agree with him!
MENDONÇA FILHO: Maybe it’s because we’re numbed by the whole process and we saw the scenes so many times. But we have a very good friend who worked on the film in fact, he worked with the cast, and when we invited him to see the film for the very first time, the very first screening in my house, in the scene where the couple shoot the car at night and then they have sex, he was… he had an emotional reaction. Almost like: how can people be so fucked up and evil? So he was very shocked, even if he was on the set when we shot the scene. So I think maybe the situations are humanly violent, and maybe the graphic aspect of the violence is not so present.
DORNELLES: We always wanted to have the scenes have surprises, to make the scenes very unexpected. And I think the violence comes from this: for example, in the cabin of the naked old guy, nobody was expecting that explosion. So it was important for the scene, to make a good scene.
NOTEBOOK: For me this surprise is also on a narrative level, the careful pacing of the whole film. The violence isn’t really revealed until quite a while into the story, and when it comes it comes as a shock. Can you tell me a bit about the story structure and the slow build up, rather than immediately jumping into things?
MENDONÇA FILHO: That’s something we’re very proud of.
MENDONÇA FILHO: … because of course we go to the movies…
DORNELLES: And we talked about Aliens, maybe 14 minutes only, going to a place, nothing happening…
MENDONÇA FILHO: Why is it that commercial cinema has gone the way it has? I think I saw one of the superhero movies and after 45 seconds, the first big scene came up. And this is not my thing. I could say that it is because I’m 50 years old, but it has nothing to do with age. I actually believe that when you tell a story, you say: right, our story begins at the Plages Majestic…
DORNELLES: But I’m 38, and I feel the same!
MENDONÇA FILHO: … and then you show Plages Majestic, and you introduce the character and then the second character. That’s the way I think it should be done. Of course, Aliens is a very popular film that belongs in popular culture, and it takes a while for things to happen, and I think it’s a beautiful thing. You can think about so many amazing films…
DORNELLES: This is good for the blood pressure and the heart beating.
MENDONÇA FILHO: … Rear Window, Tarkovsky—they all take time to give you things, and I was very attracted to the idea that if somebody doesn’t leave the room in half an hour, they will think: so this is a rural drama...
MENDONÇA FILHO: ...like a soap opera [laughs]. And then, things begin to unfold and: alright, so there are bullet-holes in the truck...
NOTEBOOK: For me, the great pleasure of this movie was that I never really knew what kind of movie it was until it was over. And even then, I’m not sure what kind of movie it is. It was like every five or ten minutes the tone changes, the action changes… It leaves you in a state of intrigue.
MENDONÇA FILHO: Yeah, I think some of my favorite films are like that. I think recently, I think Toni Erdmann had a really good…
NOTEBOOK: Yes! Like: where is this going? It could go anywhere! This film could go anywhere at any point or time.
DORNELLES: It’s so hard nowadays to keep people looking like that.
MENDONÇA FILHO: I’m really looking forward to seeing Corneliu Porumboiu’s new film [in Cannes]. I have some friends who have seen it and they say it looks great. Like [Porumboiu's] The Treasure, that was really good. Where is this going? What are they doing? Why are they digging this hole? [Laughs.]