I was told the less I knew about this one going in, the better. And that’s true! Kind of, at least. A little table setting can be helpful.

Bacurau adheres to the weird western tradition, birthed out of spaghetti western / horror hybrids of the past. Its gunplay and unflinching violence owes a debt to Tarantino. There’s even a dash of the Japanese ronin flick thrown into the mix for taste. I tell you all of this upfront because the jarring tonal shifts I experienced for the first hour of the movie almost soured me on it – almost. It wasn’t until the final act kicked into gear and motivations became a bit more apparent that I realized exactly what kind of movie Bacurau intended to be.

You aren’t given much time to process the goings on; critic-turned-director Kleber Mendonça Filho and his writing/directing partner Juliano Dornelles come out swinging, populating the script with bizarre but unmistakably sympathetic townsfolk of the titular Bacurau who mourn for their fallen matriarch, Carmelita in the opening minutes. Her body isn’t yet cold before this remote village and its people are besieged by corrupt politicians, UFO-like drones, bizarre murders, and a rather peculiar film crew led by Michael (Udo Kier in one of the best performances of his illustrious career).

Like a number of its predecessors, this particular western wears its anti-authoritarian streak like a badge of honor. When mayor Tony Junior (Thardelly Lima) comes courting their votes, he’s met with insults hurled from behind locked doors and boarded windows. The regional Brazilian government has dammed the river Bacurau relies on for drinking water, you see, and Tony is now extorting the villagers for access. This setup belies a tension between globalization and growth in South American countries like Brazil and the traditions and customs of its people – a struggle that is instantly recognizable to those who have spent some time in farm country. With the unrelenting forces of modernity pressing in on the town, its people are forced to work together to keep it safe. I wish like hell I could say more but, as I mentioned at the top, knowing less when you press play makes the final act that much more enjoyable.

This stands as the biggest moviegoing surprise of 2020 for me. In a year defined by lockdowns and time spent confined to my home with loved ones, Bacurau made explicit the power of loving, tight-knit communities in a way that felt freeing and cathartic. And it’s exactly the kind of lesson the world could stand to learn as we fight to eradicate COVID-19 in the new year.

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