Paulo Leminksi, one of Brazil’s best and most cherished poets, said he learned everything from American cinema. The ethics of behavior, as he puts it, he learned from the shoot-outs in John Wayne movies. Romance, he says, has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. All the big, important feelings have to be conveyed as explicitly and clearly as possible and things in life have to be technically well-executed, like in American cinema. Leminski said that he had a hard time distinguishing between dreams and American cinema. His dreams, he continues, have long been given up to American directors. Some nights, it is Hitchcock, on others it is John Ford. Sometimes it is Coppola. And because half of your life you spend dreaming, half of your life is inevitably American cinema. Leminski died at age 44, from cirrhosis, in 1989. One wonders if American Cinema was the thing that killed him in the end. He was so young.
Kleber Mendonça Filho, perhaps the biggest and most internationally renowned living Brazilian director, knows how this works. Movies, when they’re big-hearted and generous enough, are responsible for the texture of our dreams.
After almost two decades of working as a critic, Mendonça made a string of smart, formally engaging movies that used both contemporary national folklore and genre conventions to take the festival circuit by storm. In 2019, Mendonça Filho, along with his long-time art-director Juliano Dornelles, co-directed “Bacurau”, a fable-like western in an isolated county in the heart of the northeast of Brazil. The premise of the movie is as simple as it is intriguing: it is about the city of Bacurau waking up one morning and realizing it has, somehow, been removed from the map.
The movie opens on an image of planet earth. Comically, a satellite roves above it. We hear a Brazilian song that announces itself – the lyrics go “I will write a song for her, it will be a simple Brazilian song”. As we zoom into our pale blue-dot, we start following two travelers, speeding down a highway, in the middle of nowhere, behind the wheel of a water truck. On the left-hand corner of the screen we read that all of this is happening in a not-too-distant future.
In Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood”, the year is 1969 and silver-screen cowboys roam Los Angeles like dinosaurs waiting for the meteor. They can sense it in the air that the gig is up for them. There is no room for their leathery, dusty masculinity amongst the flower children of the day. The movie opens with a charming, tacky commercial for “Bounty Law”, a black and white fictional TV show, and segues into a chummy featurette for the same product. We meet Rick Dalton, our titular cowboy-actor and his body-double super-ego, Cliff Booth, being interviewed, performing for the camera. We then cut to a slow zoom-out of a large-scale painting of Rick Dalton, the placeholder for his parking spot in his own house. The credits roll and we are told Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio are in this movie – as if we hadn’t figured that out yet. If Dalton ever was the cowboy that Hollywood dreamed up for him, then what could he be now?
In 2019, “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood” and “Bacurau” were my favorite movies. “Hollywood” is a hundred million dollar cultural artifact from one of the last truly global auteurs that we have left; it is a movie that exists in the sphere of shaping dreams on a very large scale. “Bacurau” cost roughly 2% of what “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” cost. Financed, in part, with French money, the movie is unabashedly a Brazilian story, set in the backlands of the country, re-surfacing imagery, characters and songs that were last seen in the 60s and 70s, in the “Cinema Novo” movement. “Bacurau” is also obsessed with American cinema – it devours it whole. “Bacurau” won the “Jury Prize” at Cannes. The last time something similar happened to a Brazilian movie was in 1962.
The “western” is a genre of frontiersmen, of settlers and invaders, of travelers looking for a small town in the middle of nowhere, where no one knows their name and they can rest up for the night A place where, if they like it enough, they can start again. “Bacurau” is a western with no cowboys and “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood” is a movie about cowboys looking for a western.
In “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood”, while a hung-over Rick Dalton with a glued-on handlebar mustache walks through a cowboy town built on a back-lot, Cliff Booth, winds up at Spahn Ranch, an abandoned Western set from the 50s, which has been occupied by the Manson family. Behind the Hollywood Hills, a hippie with a murderous streak goes horseback riding to the rescue of his surrogate family. Not too far from there, the ghost of Sharon Tate (what else could you call it) buys a book, gives a hitch-hiker a ride, and goes to the movies. At the end of the day, Rick and Cliff go to Italy, where they make Sardinia look like El Paso. In Tarantino’s Italy, the cowboy dream is being exported and adapted to its audience. There, Rick Dalton can still “win some fucking fights” as Al Pacino’s producer character points out. Far away from Hollywood, people were still dreaming of a certain kind of “American cinema” and figuring out how to keep it alive.
There are no main characters in “Bacurau” there are only visitors and citizens. As such, we learn about Bacurau based on how they treat their visitors. Whenever they arrive, the citizens of Bacurau urge them to visit the museum. Throughout the film, we witness the return of prodigal children, politicians delivering Trojan horses, camouflaged motocross bikers, and even flying saucers in the sky of Bacurau. For most of the movie, no one visits the museum. Until, of course, someone does. In Westerns, we are always waiting for the invader, preparing ourselves for the day that they will arrive. And then, after it happens, we are left figuring out how to bury the dead. Constantly feeding off its own mythology, Bacurau defines itself in how it survives.
Bacurau is an imagined place, but, then again, so is Hollywood. In his conciliatory fantasy of death-denial, Quentin, a filmmaker obsessed with killing his characters, finally decides to deal with the corpses. The last time I saw “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” was at The New Beverly, in Los Angeles. Even though the movie had already left theaters, it remains playing there every week in this repertory film theatre owned and managed by Tarantino himself. There, for a few hours a week, Sharon Tate is alive and well, Margot Robbie playing this same carefree version of her on the silver screen, forever and ever.
The last time I saw “Bacurau” was at the tail end of its long theatrical run, here in Brazil. It stayed over 3 months in theaters, an essentially unheard feat for a national genre film, shot outside of the city’s cultural capitals. It was at the nearest theatre to my house, a Cinemark multiplex located in the west side of the city of Rio de Janeiro. That day, in particular, the exhibitor was only showing Brazilian movies, from the past and the present, in all of its theaters for extremely reduced ticket values. “Bacurau” was the movie chosen for the IMAX theatre. This was the first time I was seeing a Brazilian film on a screen that large. As I left, I heard a group of enthusiastic teenagers disagreeing violently about how the citizens of Bacurau buried the dead. In Bacurau, as we learn from one of the movie’s first sequences, they know the importance of burying the dead.
Both screenings were absolutely packed. I hope they stay packed forever. Go watch “Bacurau”, in theaters across the United States of America, March 6th.