Still Bacurau

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Fernão Pessoa Ramos*

Film is not a sociological essay and art is not science (even “human sciences”). This seems to be a good motto to oppose the dominant tone in the criticisms about Bacurau, a new work by Kleber Mendonça, co-directed with Juliano Dornelles.

Cinema is an art, already ancient, which has the particularity of being one of the first “arts of the masses”, involving a technological medium. Perhaps because of this characteristic, and in general needing high financial resources, cinema is able to condense and represent (in a filmic way) emerging social trends easily.

The main moments of our universal history (from the American Civil War to the Conquest of the Moon, passing through the Soviet Revolution, the French popular front of the 1930s, the European post-war period, May 1968 and the counterculture, etc.) his fingerprint in works of world cinematography.

In the case of Brazil, one of its privileged moments, Cinema Novo, was characterized by bringing the breath of history and large frames of symbolic bias. It seemed natural, at that time, to represent the history of Brazil in the narrative diegetic-fictional way, and this was done for more than a decade. The 1964 coup and the military dictatorship that followed had their social forces (the high industrial bourgeoisie, the agents of imperialism, the middle class, the disinherited people, the owners of the media, the young revolutionary) transformed into characters of a fictional universe, with more or less linear plots.

From this set, we can highlight a trait in the exercise of cinema in Brazil: in this art there were almost never popular filmmakers – from the people themselves – directly involved, in a hegemonic way, in its production. With the exception of some of our great actors, it is art made predominantly by the middle class who, with their own resources or raising public/state funding, obtain material conditions to create cinematographically.

In moments when it becomes aware of this paradoxical situation, and the representation of the popular other emerges as a need and fissure (or wound), Brazilian cinema reaches its creative peaks – a great aesthetic that manages to encompass the nation, reflecting its dilemmas, radical contradictions and recurring aspirations.

The “popular”, then, is always the “other” in Brazilian cinema, as it is not he who makes the art, as naturally occurs in certain music, such as samba. The filmic representation of the people by the middle class – which has the necessary resources for the expensive art of cinema – involves, therefore, the constitution of an alterity.

In modernity, this movement of representation, or knowledge, about the other (whether of class or ethnicity), stems from “guilt” and “bad conscience”, very Christian feelings with which the best works of Brazilian cinema are loaded. Not exactly “resentment”, as some would like, since it is not from the popular side that it starts – but bad conscience and its related affects, such as guilt and compassion.

The main works of the period called “Retomada”, in the 1990s and 2000s (we can mention, among others, Central do Brasil, from 1998; Carandiru from 2003; The Invader, 2002; Elite squad 1, 2007) are loaded with these Judeo-Christian background emotions that underlie our civilization. mimesis, metamorphosis of guilt and compassion.

There is, however, another way that the film Bacurau walks. The one that involves intertextuality and the dialogue, ironic or mocking, of cinema with itself, within the limit of the density of genres that its own history has shaped (western, Black, musical, chanchada, science fiction).

In contemporary Brazil Bacurau, in the country presided over by Bolsonaro, the space for the middle class to taste guilt and compassion is suddenly being restricted. Now the emerging modalities are of more from punk, so to speak.

One difference is that alternative audiovisual production systems (with or without state support) are emerging with the cheapness of new technologies and new forms of audiovisual exhibition and distribution. A new production originating in peripheral communities is taking hold, as never before. And the image it brings of its reality does not always coincide with the figure of the popular criminalized, or victimized, so much to the taste of good conscience. New figures, new fictional universes are appearing, for good and for bad.

Bacurau, in this sense, is a film that still walks in the universe of the popular as class alterity, but tunes it in a different way. Compassion no longer provides the same combustion as before: one side of the cathartic object, the popular “poor thing”, got out of hand and now walks with its own legs.

The artist who knows how to tune his time, as is the case in Bacurau, shows the object of pity also hitting, also hitting, but without the insurance of compassion, which complicates the circuit of affection in the rescue of good conscience.

Has catharsis changed sides in Brazilian Cinema? Instead of the thick tears of compassion provoked by Central do Brasil, or Carandiru, now it is the discharge of an eye for an eye, the retaliation of the action that has the will to power, which carries the purification of affection in the mimesis.

Descriptions of exaltation and enthusiastic applause from the public are recurrent (a rare thing in the most anonymous enjoyment of cinema), in the bloodiest scenes of Bacurau. If the catharsis of blame for the nation could be touched on Carandiru, with Brazilian watercolor (by Ary Barroso) serving as the background for the massacre of the people in the dungeons, why not Requiem for Matraga, by Geraldo Vandré, recycled, as a musical background for the bang bang bloodthirsty cangaceiro who washes our souls?

It seems to be difficult to think about the Brazilian social reality without the aid of bad conscience as a walking stick.

The pendular character representing the middle class, so well characterized by Jean-Claude Bernardet in his analysis of the emergence of Cinema Novo in Brazil in movie time (Companhia das Letras) has now disappeared from the horizon. Artists who feel their time – and Kleber Mendonça, who co-signed the film with Juliano Dornelles, is one of them – show the sensitivity of the day to direct, frontal, fierce conflict.

Antonio das Mortes God and the Devil in the Land of the Sun (Glauber Rocha/1964), carefully leading the peasants Rosa and Manuel by the arm, like the angel of history, towards the end of alienation and the promised land of the hinterland facing the sea, he stayed behind. The end of redemptive mediation is shocking to some, as the story too has its brutality and often heavy-handedness.

On the other hand, and therein lies its freedom, Bacurau is unrealistic fiction, a kind of Mad Max Brazilian. It starts with the sign “in a few years” and space images of the Earth seen from space, closing to the national territory. The musical background, which occupies exclusively the soundtrack of the initial sequence, the song Not identified, by Caetano Veloso (1969), speaks of a “sentimental anti-computer”, of “a flying saucer” launched “into the outer space of the sky of a country town”.

The description of the fantasy fictional universe of the film in the song is precise and inserts the film right on the edge of the genre, placing it in a not-too-distant future (but which is not the present), in a desolate and lawless land in which the people decide to exercise its potency and asserts the strength and genealogy of its ethical values.

The intertextual features of the narrative are clear, with tropicalist (archaic/very modern) and “tarantinesque” tones that make the intended realism, which would facilitate the criticism of the film as a sociological essay, out of harmony. It is a fact that bothers some critics with a more purist social sensitivity, who feel more comfortable with a linearly propositional cinema.

The gender intertextuality present in Bacurau it makes a layer and gives the film the necessary centrifugation to escape the chains in which Brazilian cinema of social cut ended up trapped. It is a movement similar to what we already found in City of God, from 2002, but now present in a distinct way in the contemporaneity of its constitution, focused on the issue of unfettered popular empowerment.

And, in Bolsonaro's Brazil, the path is really to build power by itself, with a club in hand. Bacurau brings along with the abundance of blood ketchup and burial alive (another Tarantino image), centrifugation thanks to from the ultramodern tropicalista, the fast-paced delirious fiction mixed with archaic-realistic slowness (more in the first half of the film), and other figures that the mixture of genre intertextuality opens up, such as the flying saucer, the infallible gunman, the empty city waiting for the duel and, very Brazilian, the severed heads.

This realistic image, bursting in the genre, maybe the directors got it from cangaço memories, from 1964, a small jewel in the Brazilian documentary by Farkas and Paulo Gil Soares, which seems to have been glued to the film.

With Bacurau, Kleber Mendonça asserts himself as one of the leading filmmakers of the new generation that arrived in feature films with the millennium already underway, showing a secure stylistic mastery of the art. In The sound around (2013), the archetypal image of the film was already the impressive waterfall of blood on the property of the “sinhozinhos”, preceding the progressive siege of the bloodthirsty “colonel” in his urban refuge; in Aquarius (2016), is the invasion of termites corroding, from within and hidden, without showing the appearance, the entrails of a decadent middle class in its isolated island of resistance.

Em Bacurau the cycle closes. Now, without mediations, inoperative regression gives vent to the myth of released repressed power. With a Nietzschean background, the other oppressed-slave makes his time count, throwing up the master's good conscience and his advice for measuring the stick at the appropriate intensity.

It is the Brazil of Bolsonaro, or the Brazil that Bolsonaro gave rise to. The most interesting thing is that, in this measure (the measure of representation that is established), the Brazil of Bacurau takes shape not by means of a realistic representation, but by the hand of the genre, which turns with an overdetermination to seek breath in the history of cinema and in eminently intertextual styles such as Tropicalism.

Maybe it's the price the film pays to get rid of the weight it still carries, of mediation as an exercise of the other's voice, a re-presentation of what it knows is no longer its own.

*Fernão Pessoa Ramos he is a professor at the Department of Cinema at Unicamp and author, among other books, of But after all… what is a documentary? (Senac, 2008).

Article published in Journal of Unicamp

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