Bacurau Has Always Been Here

Bacurau (2019)

photo: Victor Jucá/Kino Lorber

There’s something fundamentally hallucinatory about hot weather—something in the way the air shimmers and waves. It’s easy to see how people stranded in the desert envision oases in the throes of dehydration. The air seems malleable, as though its undulations can twist and turn into anything you can imagine. Bacurau (2019) exists in this hazy space of too much heat and too little water, begetting visions that seem just outside the realm of the expected: flying saucer drones and motorcycle riders bedecked in psychedelic neon, all party to conspiracy.

Bacurau is hot, and the residents of this fictional village in the northeastern Brazilian sertão (hinterlands similar to the Australian outback) are thirsty. Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima), mayor of the Bacurau-encompassing municipality Serra Verde, has cut off nearby access to the river, forcing the water truck driver farther upstream. And now the truck’s been shot up, perfect cylinders of water streaming out the back. Despite a dearth of rainfall, a vibrant green saturates the sertão. It’s almost too green, verging on the edge of unreal.

It’s against this backdrop that Teresa (Bárbara Colen) returns to her homeland, toting a suitcase full of smuggled vaccines. Upon her arrival, villager Damiano (Carlos Francisco) immediately slips a pill into her mouth. It’s an intimate gesture, signaling love and familiarity. He may not be her biological father, but all the older men in the town are her fathers, in a sense. He gives her a searching look as she swallows; after a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flicker of distress (or maybe just difficulty swallowing the pill) she flashes a warm smile, laughs, and kisses Damiano on the cheek. 

We’ll soon come to see that this little pill holds a special place in the village’s culture. But contrary to common notions of how drugs devastate communities, Bacurau is not riddled with addiction and worsening physical and mental health. Its citizens are not dependent on the drug. Rather, it enhances life in the community. Reminiscent of the “love drug,” MDMA, it seems to evoke connectedness and intimacy among its users. But whereas MDMA is considered an aggression-reducing serenic, this pill does not solely engender peace and love; it also renders Bacurau’s residents capable of horrific violence. “We have taken a powerful psychotropic drug,” Plínio (Wilson Rabelo) tells Tony Junior near the film’s conclusion, “and you are going to die.”

Before 1996, when film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum co-opted and gave it his own meaning, the term “acid Western” was little more than a tossed-off insult Pauline Kael had used to describe El Topo (1970). In Kael’s eyes, the film’s extreme violence and outlandish plot would especially endear it to drug users. Rosenbaum, though, saw it another way. He would eventually use the term to describe Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) and a host of films from the politically radical sixties and seventies, like The Last Movie and Two-Lane Blacktop (both 1971). Acid Westerns, as Rosenbaum expanded in a later book on Dead Man, involve absurd hallucinogenic visions, startling violence, and, ultimately, profound countercultural alternatives to capitalism. Reversing traditional Western tropes, they subvert genre expectations to rewrite flawed historical narratives of American expansion and exceptionalism. Often, the rugged, individualistic heroes die devoid of glory. In Bacurau, they die at the hands of the very people they seek to massacre.

It’s hallucinogens that are the key to the town’s existence outside capitalist strictures. Bacurau depicts a society built on mutual support and collective action, augmented by communal use of psychoactives, though directors Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles stop short of showing how exactly the drug affects the townspeople’s perception. No tie-dye swirls and spirals fill the screen; nothing alters from the viewer’s vantage point. But a few hints at hallucination emerge, if you look closely. A sensation of hearing voices permeates the film, either in the form of speech without a clear diegetic source, or through the reactions of the white tourists (who’ve come to slaughter the townspeople) to unheard instructions coming through the wireless earbuds they wear.

The only seeming hallucination elicited by the actual drug manifests in a vision of town matriarch Carmelita’s coffin shaking and overflowing with water. It’s as if even in death, Bacurau’s matriarch defends her people from the ravages of greedy politicians, giving life to her home and family in the punishing drought. Carmelita’s funeral procession fades into a shot of Teresa staring at the coffin with a gaze simultaneously intent and unfocused. Water starts spilling forth, and there’s a brief cut back to Teresa taking the pill. The residents of Bacurau face this waterlogged coffin with nonchalance. Perhaps they’re simply used to a reality altered by hallucinogenic drugs—or maybe they’re used to a magical reality, even absent psychedelics. 

These departures from the realm of the real, in an otherwise plausible narrative, are reminiscent of magical realism, a literary style prominent in Latin American works of the mid-twentieth century. Unlike in fantasy, these embellishments don’t mark a world fundamentally different from our own, and characters don’t react as if anything out of the ordinary has happened. They live in our world; just enhanced a bit. To be fair, anything in Bacurau that seems unreal can ultimately be explained away by technology. The town hasn’t vanished from the face of the earth, it’s just vanished from Google Maps. That’s not an alien spaceship, it’s a drone. Yet how do we explain the floods of water pouring forth from Carmelita’s coffin, or tourist leader Michael’s (Udo Kier’s) vision of the deceased matriarch? Once the dust settles and the truth of the supernatural phenomena is exposed—what seems phantasmagoric is just the machinations of a garden-variety greedy politician—there’s still a sense that reality is just a little different here.

The formal innovation inherent in magical realism allows it to break through traditional narrative structures and depict the historical and political struggles of Latin American countries in a new light. Many of these countries’ fraught political histories feature a coup propped up by U.S. intelligence, and Brazil is no different in this respect. In 1964, the CIA supported a military coup that led to a twenty-year dictatorship marked by egregious human rights violations and widespread media censorship in the country. Stateside, the agency was concurrently drugging marginalized populations in the name of statecraft and security. Years before psychedelic drugs became a hallmark of 1960s counterculture, officers in Project MKUltra dosed unknowing prisoners, sex workers, and psychiatric patients with LSD, hoping to develop a “truth serum,” or just to render subjects pliant and willing to act on behalf of the state. Acid was simultaneously a tool of authoritarian control and a liberatory device in radical left politics.

In Bacurau, too, drugs can both free their users or confine them further within capitalist oppression. Tony Junior isn’t against the residents of Bacurau taking narcotics—they just have to be the right kind. In a camera-ready donation of supplies to the town, along with cans of expired food and a truckload of books unceremoniously dumped in front of the schoolhouse, is a supply of Brasol IV, an addictive mood stabilizer that lulls its users into complacency. By providing the townspeople with these drugs, Tony Junior hopes to alter their perception of the world, covering their eyes with a content sheen. He follows this useless delivery with an entreaty to submit to retinal scans, notionally to facilitate voting and strengthen their enfranchisement. But one can imagine that it is really intended to facilitate the state apparatus of surveillance and mass incarceration. Tony Junior wishes to seize control of the Bacurau residents’ vision, chemically revising their perception and even using the physical forms of their eyes for biometrically-enhanced monitoring.

At the film’s start, we descend from a satellite’s point-of-view onto a tiny point in rural Brazil. We hear the sound of a radio tuning, going back and forth between waves of twangy music and static. In this moment, we are the alien, the pilot of the flying saucer, tuning into the signals below. We are the surveillance, the drone monitoring the residents of Bacurau, bent on keeping them in check. But our probing, implicitly imperial gaze is tempered by the music of Gal Costa. Those staticky sounds we hear are the opening of “Não Identificado,” a track from Costa’s eponymous 1969 album, before she launches into a phenomenal demonstration of the capabilities of the human voice. Costa, incidentally, was vital in the development of Tropicália, a Brazilian art movement used to spread anarchic messages and protest the military dictatorship.

In Rosenbaum’s terms, acid Westerns are inherently revisionist. Too often, though, this framing connotes a film whose sole purpose is to correct the outdated morals of classic Westerns—a work that exists only as a response and not on its own terms. Though Bacurau is inspired by classic Westerns, the ideas it expresses are more than just a reaction to the set Western tropes. Notably, the film champions collective action as an alternative to the individualism of capitalism. In some ways, the bloodthirsty tourists bear more similarity to Western heroes of old: bold lone wolves forging out into uncharted territory (at least, uncharted by white people). But when we think of Westerns, we often think of the lone gunman: John Wayne standing isolated in a door frame, outside of the home and the idea of communal living. Bacurau instead lauds the collective over the individual. Even as certain townspeople emerge as foci of the film, the protagonist is ultimately the entire community, banding together to protect their village. Much of the film is dedicated to their rituals, from the funeral ceremony in the beginning to their collective ingestion of hallucinatory drugs. Abandoned by the corrupt mayor of the municipality, they take care of themselves. They sort through and disseminate the few items of use from the torn-up books and old food Tony Junior provides in his bid for support in the next election.

Bárbara Colen in a scene from Bacurau | photo: Victor Jucá/Kino Lorber

And where the brothel occasionally serves as a site of mutual vigilance in the Western—the prostitutes of Unforgiven (1992) cobbling together a bounty on the head of their peer’s attacker, a sex worker in The Sisters Brothers (2018) warning Eli Sisters of violent pursuers—in Bacurau, its role is expanded. The mobile brothel is the first line of defense for the village, as the madam spots and raises the alarm about approaching intruders. Her announcements make their way onto a network of chiming phones and over the PA system, allowing the villagers to disappear into their dwellings and make Bacurau a ghost town. Someone is, in fact, trying to make Bacurau a literal ghost town, to wipe it off the map both physically and virtually, though it’s not quite clear who. It’s hard to parse whether the tourists work for some political machine or whether they call their own shots in this brutal game. They seem to take orders over their earpieces, and on the surface, wiping out the town of Bacurau seems like it would help Tony Junior’s reelection campaign.

But would it really? It’s hard to imagine the residents of Bacurau setting much stock in local politics, enthusiastically availing themselves of their right to vote. Their government has failed them time and time again. They regard it with cynical suspicion, and rely upon one another instead. When Tony Junior discovers the tourists’ demise, he seems not angry, but scared. Perhaps a higher-up government official brought the hunters in, or perhaps this murderous tourism is a lucrative industry, and its wealthy participants will have Tony’s head for his failure to ensure the invaders’ comfort and safety. 

Whoever seeks to finish off Bacurau—whether the government, the wealthy, or both—is in for a nasty shock. Bacurau thrives as a ghost town. The residents secret themselves away until the time is right to wield their guns through windows and trapdoors, bangs and flashes dispatching the cocky cowboys who thought they had the upper hand. They may be unable to communicate audibly, but their history of acting in cohesion spurs on their coordinated assault. And who knows? Maybe that drug has some telepathic properties. We are dealing with magic, after all.

But maybe it’s all a fever dream, a dehydration hallucination in the punishing heat and aridity. This vision of a caring society focused on the collective, free from unequal dictates of capitalist power structures, sure is appealing, though. If capitalist realism is an idea that no viable economic system exists outside capitalism, maybe we need some magical realism to counter that.