If you’re worried about your local multiplex during this time of no theatrical movies, you should be. Even a big chain like AMC Theatres is making noises about bankruptcy, so imagine the struggles of the small art-house theaters. They deserve your attention in this crisis as much as the craft brewers and mom-and-pop restaurants. Fortunately, there’s a way to help them. Kino Lorber, the distributor of small foreign films, is offering up the Brazilian film Bacurau on its streaming service Kino Marquee, and a portion of your fee will go toward the Grand Berry Theater. You can help out a local business while seeing the winner of the jury prize at Cannes last year, which is quite worth it under any circumstances.
The film’s title translates as “nightjar” and is also the name of its setting, a fictitious town in western Pernambuco state, a hot, dry area of northeastern Brazil that looks oddly like Texas’ backcountry. As the town gathers for the funeral of its 94-year-old matriarch (Lia de Itamaracá), the mayor of the region (Thardelly Lima) is hoarding water from the nearby river while the people’s crops wither and die. Protecting the resource is a band of American and British mercenaries led by a German ex-soldier (Udo Kier) who doesn’t mind if his guys shoot children or dogs for fun. In response, a transgender freedom fighter (Silvero Pereira) has resorted to killing and decapitating the mercs she lays her hands on, but it isn’t until the bad guys massacre a family of five plus two unlucky bystanders that the townfolk line up behind her.
If this sounds like the set-up for a shoot-em-up Western, you’re not wrong. However, the filmmakers include weird touches like a doctor (Bárbara Colen) hallucinating water gushing from the dead woman’s coffin and an old farmer being chased along the backroads by an alien spaceship — the old man is no fool, and quickly figures out that it’s a drone. Director Kleber Mendonça Filho (who is from Pernambuco) has set previous films such as Neighboring Sounds and Aquarius in big cities. For this rural story, he takes on a collaborator for the first time in co-writer/director Juliano Dornelles. The plot turns on specific environmental policies of Brazil’s government under Jair Bolsonaro, but you don’t have to know anything about those to appreciate the frosty reception that the citizens give the mayor when he stops in for a campaign rally. The funeral rituals we see performed here make ample reference to Brazilian pagan mythology, and as the son of a Brazilian mother, I can tell you that that’s a rich subject, if you care to delve.
If the First Worlders with the Kevlar and the automatic rifles never quite make convincing villains, the film holds enough distinction just having a trans woman as the catalyst for the violence, and 1980s sexpot Sônia Braga shows up to invest the part of a hard-drinking village doctor with some authority. Fans of Hollywood Westerns might find the culture strange, but they’ll easily recognize the slow-rolling suspense of the climactic sequence, as the townspeople lure the soldier wannabes into a trap along Bacurau’s main drag. The blend of the familiar and the esoteric make this the most accessible film of Mendonça Filho’s I’ve seen, and the $12 screening fee is a knockdown price for two people quarantining together. It’d be nice to have the Grand Berry up and running and showing us more films like this when we all finally emerge from this lockdown.
Starring Sônia Braga and Udo Kier. Written and directed by Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles. Rated R.