As the film industry, like the rest of us, grapples with how to move forward in the midst of a global pandemic, studios that had plans to release new films to now-closed movie theaters in the next several weeks have had to rethink things. Some are pushing the films back by months, sometimes an entire year to be safe; some are scrapping the theatrical route all together and pushing their films out on streaming platforms. This “new normal” presents unique challenges to the film economy, as venues are suddenly rendered obsolete and those making the movies have to figure out new and unique ways to get their products to audiences.
New York-based arthouse distributor Kino Lorber (recent titles include Beanpole and Synonyms) has perhaps tapped into the most innovative of solutions for their release of Bacurau, a dystopian thriller about a small, tight-knit community in rural Brazil that was slated to open in theaters last week. In seemingly no time at all, the company announced Kino Marquee, effectively creating a digital release that allows audiences to purchase streaming access to the film via their local cinema, therefore still supporting both the film and the theater as they would have had they been able to head out on the town. The film becomes available via Chicago’s Music Box Theatre today.
Written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, Barucau is named after the town in which it takes place, a small blip on the radar in rural, western Brazil; we’re told in the opening sequence that the story about to unfold takes place “a few years from now…”. Teresa (Bárbara Colen), bumming a ride home with a trucker transporting fresh water, is just returning home for her grandmother’s funeral, and the whole town has turned out for it. She brings with her a suitcase that’s ushered into her family home like a sacred Ark of the Covenant, and as soon as it’s opened by Domingas (the incomprable Sonia Braga), we realize why: it’s chock full of vaccines and medicine the doctor needs desperately for her townspeople. As Teresa gets caught up on what she’s missed since her last visit, we get to know her father, Plinio (Wilson Rabelo), a teacher and town elder, and Pacote (Thomas Aquino), a rebel (and Teresa’s sometimes lover) who updates the family on the latest rumblings of trouble from the edge of town.
There are hints early on that something is amiss in this near-future world, and an unannounced visit by two outsiders, off-road bikers who “stumbled” onto the town, quickly escalates from a chance encounter to something much more tense and ominous. With glimpses of just enough modern technology to imply a coordinated effort, the filmmakers shift their focus to a group gathered at a sort of well-armed safe house miles from Bacurau, Americans plotting their “mission” against the town and its inhabitants. And just like that, whatever movie you thought you were watching (for me, it was perhaps a story of a prodigal daughter returned to rediscover herself in the small town that raised her?) becomes something else entirely. The result is a film that deftly navigates a variety of narrative notes, from the role of women in a thriving (if insulated) socialist society to the class warfare that deems hunting fellow humans tolerable.
Once the townspeople understand just what’s happening around them (and to them), the film shifts yet again to something practically galvanizing, as they band together to fight back. The filmmakers aren’t afraid of getting graphic by this point, and there’s at least one scene that’s so sharply cut together (with effects that are truly gruesome) that I jumped as it happened. That said, at just over two hours long, the film takes its time in a lot of ways and yet never quite goes deep in any one direction. Teresa’s story fades into the background along with the rest of the townspeople, and even a tense exchange at the bunker between Mihcael (Udo Kier) and Terry (Jonny Mars) is hard to care about after the moment passes.
Overall, Bacurau is a dark, dystopian statement on the depths of depravity that humans are capable of—and often without too much needed to push them to it. It’s also a stark observation of what happens when a citizenry stops trusting its leaders and institutions and the inevitable breakdown of the rule of order that follows. That it manages to be all of that while also entertaining as a solid genre picture with strong performances and beautiful photography makes it quite worth a digital trip to the cinema, especially in these times.