Bacurau, in English, translates as ‘nightjar’. A nocturnal bird that consumes insects, it can be seen as a saviour; getting rid of pests that could harm us. On the other hand, it has the nickname goatsucker, referring to a legend that it sucked the milk from goats, causing their milk to become sour. As such, this bird exists as an oxymoron, and the film named after it takes much the same tack. By setting itself in the near future, BACURAU allows itself to explore a world that is something of a dark reflection of our own and revels in this juxtaposition.
At first, BACURAU presents itself as a conventional comedy when a family member returns home to a village they have long since left after the death of their grandmother. Shortly afterwards, as she settles back into village life, it becomes something akin to the television series M*A*S*H, complete with its own humorous announcements over the intercom. Even at this point there are hints of darkness under the surface. The water supply to the town has been cut off by a corrupt mayor, requiring water to be shipped in by truck. Meanwhile, well-known bandits live in and around the town and are accepted by the community as heroes. While BACURAU never abandons its comedy sensibilities, even in its darkest moments, there is a gradual descent from this lighter comedy into something much darker. For its next acts, the film executes a heel-turn, becoming a western instead. This genre change is not merely narrative, with the direction, score and cinematography adjusting to emphasise this. As the film develops, it acquires other elements, with an ending somewhat closer to the Spaghetti Western, or even an inverted Hot Fuzz. Individually, each genre within BACURAU is broadly successful on its own terms, but while clues are dropped about what is to come, the transitions never seem to be as smooth as they need to allow the film to flow freely. If the intention was to reinforce its oxymoronic nature, then it is arguably too successful on this point; the concept of the weird western becoming somewhat muddied here.
The merits of the transitions aside, the genre-defying nature helps build upon the more satirical aspects of the plot. Imagery of life – nudity, sex, love – is presented alongside the talismans of death – guns, drones and drugs. The acceptance of both is crucial for the residents of Bacurau to overcome their problems, something the strangers in their town do not. This comparison is also seen by the curiously retro nature of the film, featuring drones that look like 1950s UFOs and a strong colonialist theme. The commentary on the latter is particularly biting, with characters setting themselves apart from others, insisting on speaking English in a Portuguese-language film. There is also a kind of sexual thrill in their actions, yet also something childish, which only serves to reinforce the juxtaposed nature of the plot. While the villagers are able to accept both new technologies alongside their ancient traditions and heritage, these strangers are not. It is said that “those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat its mistakes,” and in BACURAU, this has never been truer.
With the ability to examine both the past and a possible future, BACURAU is a cutting satire that seeks to inform us about where our current policies are leading us. Indeed, as politicians call on the past to justify their actions in the present, it couldn’t be more timely. But even in the film’s darkest moments, it offers hope as a community of many backgrounds comes together in a time of crisis and shows that history isn’t set just yet.