Mutual Aid as Self-Defense in Bacurau

By Johanna Isaacson

With its blazing guns and wide western expanses, no one would guess that the Brazilian horror western Bacurau is a chick flick. But, if you define “chick flick” as a movie having to do with contemporary feminized social reproduction and its discontents (as I, and maybe no one else, do), then chick flick it is. The film ends in the spectacular and gratifying revenge of an exploited group of people against their patriarchal, capitalist aggressors. But just as importantly, Bacurau dwells on what those people have to lose – their collective strategies for mutual aid, care, reproduction, and autonomy. 

As Bacurau shows, even in a relatively independent and egalitarian town, it’s impossible to escape the gendered violence of global capitalism. This monstrous force disguises itself as “civilization,” but is unmasked as a predator engaged in an endless quest for more – more land, more work, more resources, more blood. This force, though, is not indestructible. Bacurau depicts mutual aid and community care as weapons with which even the most besieged underdog can fight back. 

We are introduced to the small Northern Brazilian town Bacurau through Teresa, who has returned to attend her grandmother’s funeral. In an early moment, she walks through a looking glass. In the deserted, dusty streets of Bacurau, a man offers her a pill. Once she swallows, she enters into a green enclave, filled with warm, affectionate people. We soon learn that some of this diverse group are Teresa’s family, but we don’t know who – all of them treat her as a daughter or sister. In fact, in this film the notion of the family as a biological unit or a unit of social reproduction doesn’t exist. Instead, acts of care are distributed through a community that does not conform to gendered roles. In an act of practiced coordination amongst the motley group, her suitcase (filled with free vaccines for the people) is passed around from hand to hand until it lands in her home, where her grandmother Carmelita has been laid out and is surrounded by loved ones. 

That the bucolic town is under siege slowly emerges with mysterious losses of phone signals, the appearance of a strange drone, and an odd moment when a schoolteacher tries to show his students Bacurau online, and finds that the town has been literally wiped off of the map. The people of Bacurau can no longer ignore that something is really wrong when a stampede of horses from a nearby farm storms into town. The town outlaw, Pacote, sends his people out to investigate and they are killed by a couple who appeared as gaudy tourists, but, as we will soon find, are really part of a conspiratorial plot to destroy Bacurau. 

When the tourists/murderers arrive at an abandoned colonial mansion, this plot is partially revealed to us. The tourists are Brazilian Southerners – whiter and more middle class than the people of Bacurau – who have been commissioned by a cabal of Anglo invaders to operate as local scouts. Flown in from Europe, Australia, and the U.S., the white intruders have donned themselves in military gear and plan to attack the town. At first they appear to be mercenaries, but it turns out that they are merely monstrous tourists themselves, with Michael, a German who has been living in the US, serving as a kind of Safari guide to their fascistic fantasy vacation. 

Unlike the people of Bacurau, who are shown in moments of cooperation, the hunters are constantly fighting, bickering and attacking each other. They cohabitate, but they have no sense of coordination or allegiance. For them, even sex is a byproduct of brutality. None of the participants seem to have any romantic attraction, but after one kill a woman summarily mounts the man who accompanies her as a way of celebrating her act of cruelty. In their inhumanity and rootlessness they correspond to what Cindi Katz calls “vagabond capitalism,” a phrase which “puts the vagrancy and dereliction where it belongs – on capitalism, that unsettled, dissolute, irresponsible stalker of the world” which lacks any respect for locality or social reproduction. [1]

In both the New York Times and Variety, reviewers found Bacurau unsatisfying because of its lack of focus on particular characters. Peter Debruge sees it as a simplistic political allegory with characters that are “barely sketched.” He cites the film’s lack of follow-through on characters who are introduced early in the film as proof of Bacurau’s thinness. [2]

However, I contend this lack of focus on individuals is its strength. The town itself is a character and the people in it all have roles within this larger entity. In Bacurau the directors, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, have built a near-future utopia (albeit one limited by scarcity and dependent on remittances). Rather than getting to know a singular character, we get to know the town as a vibrant, but not idealized, collectivity.

As the directors note, the town is based on a quilombo, a town built by fugitive slaves. In the economically challenged Northeast, where Bacurau takes place, these towns do exist, but they are homogenous, occupied only by people of African descent, while the larger cities are generally white. Here instead we encounter a mixed-race quilombo, or what Filho calls a “remixed quilombo” with people of all shades, genders, and sexualities, including gender non-conforming and trans people. [3] Although the evil neocolonial assassins characterize it as primitive, it is more accurate to describe the town as a resourceful bricolage, borrowing what it likes from various traditions, as well as repurposing the technologies of capitalism for its own ends. This is formally signified in a key scene in which the people of Bacurau prepare for battle by playing capoeria, a dance-like martial art that can be traced back to black resistance. The music that accompanies this training/play is diegetic hand-clapping, but this segues into swelling synthesizer music composed by horror master John Carpenter. As Bruno Guaraná puts it, generic leaps like these “add to the film’s visual, aura, and contextual absorbency.” [4]

The town features robust communal institutions of social reproduction including a school, a church, a communal meeting place, a museum, a greenhouse, a brothel, and a medical center. While we don’t deeply engage with any particular individual, we do come to understand the character of the town through the passion each member of the community has for their role in its ecosystem. The two most prominent citizens are Dominga and Plinio, and they are not so much leaders as emblems and facilitators of collective social reproduction.

Dominga is far from perfect. We are introduced to her as she disrupts a funeral to drunkenly scream at the deceased. But she is dedicated to the town’s health and wellbeing. We watch her as she respectfully treats the town’s drunks and prostitutes with pragmatic care. She is Bacurau’s bulldog, fiercely stepping up to threats from a local politician and from the murderous strangers. 

In some ways Dominga is the matriarch of the town, but the directors are clear they did not want to purvey an anthropological fantasy of tribal organicism. Dominga is incompatible with any stereotype of matriarchal pacifist or warrior. She wears a white coat and curses like a sailor. She is able to live as an open lesbian and commands respect because of her role in the town’s social reproduction rather than tradition or custom. In the end, even though she is the town’s enforcer, her focus is always healing. She even agrees to treat one of the injured killers, once she no longer sees her as a threat. 

Dominga represents feminized social reproduction, but her hardened carapace makes her seem more traditionally masculine than Plinio. He is responsible for educating the town’s young and organizing the distribution of resources. These two are personifications of the symbiosis of self-defense and mutual aid necessary in the struggle for autonomy. While Dominga leans towards fierceness and community protection, Plinio emphasizes harmony, forgiveness, and collaboration. Early in the film Dominga drunkenly disrupts Carmelita’s (his mother’s) funeral. The natural response would be to chastise Dominga, but instead he acknowledges the emotional intensity of the moment and makes a speech honoring Carmelita’s inclusivity, whose family embodies social diversity – “In our family there are bricklayers and doctors, scientists, architects, gigolos, and whores, but not a single thief.” He presents Carmelita as the heart of Bacurau, and Bacurau itself as a utopian hope for a near-future Brazil turned horror-scape by neoliberal capital.

Plinio and Dominga share the facilitation of provisioning the town, embodying their respective roles of generosity and protectiveness. When the community is trying to figure out what to do with the trashy supplies that a corrupt politician brought to town, Plinio suggests that villagers can take some risks with the expired goods to feed themselves while Dominga lectures on the evil of the medicines. Neither asserts that they have the right to choose for anyone in the town, where autonomy rules. And both are clear that all the supplies are to be shared according to people’s needs.

As the pressures on the town escalate and they must begin burying their dead we are introduced to additional essential members of the community, such as the local musician, who operates as a sort of Greek chorus and the priest/DJ who conducts ceremonies with the aid of a flashy screen on the back of his truck. Particularly endearing are a naked elderly couple who gently cultivate their plants in a greenhouse, but who are well trained in modern warfare if the occasion calls for it. 

More evidence of the town’s resourceful bricolage-styled social reproduction is its porousness. Characters like Teresa and Pacote drift in and out, bringing supplies and news. Lunga is a genderqueer outlaw who has stationed herself outside of town, waging an ongoing battle against a dam that deprives Bacurau of its water supply. In a traditional masculinist western film, she would be the town’s loner savior/protector, but Bacurau folds her back into the collective while still showcasing her valued skills at warfare. 

While care and the sense of belonging is thickly depicted among the people of Bacurau, by contrast the villains are cartoonish emblems of imperialism and violence. Every line they spew reveals the racism and violence of the global system, along with their toxic sense of entitlement. At one point, Terry, who is self-righteous because he hasn’t let his violent urges provoke him to intentionally kill any U.S. citizens or children, evokes manifest destiny when he says “Now, God’s given me the opportunity to relieve this pain here.” Only Michael’s motivations remain mysterious, and it is he who is vulnerable to some kind of conversion. 

I would argue that the moment of conversion comes in the film’s most inexplicable scene. After the hunters have picked off some of Bacurau’s people, they decide to finish the town off, laying siege to it. When they arrive, Bacurau’s streets are strategically abandoned. However, as Michael makes his way into town, Dominga blocks his way, standing in front of her home/medical office with a table loaded with cashew milk and stew, offering it to the hunter. Instead of a gun, she proffers the simplest elements of social reproduction – homemade food, camaraderie, music. Michael, who typically has an air of steely mastery, looks baffled, but eventually overturns the table, rejecting her offer. After this, though, he turns on his own people. 

The pill that Theresa took when she entered town is a powerful psychedelic that allowed her to move from the individualist diasporic world she left, and back into the communal mindset of Bacurau. This drug, though, is also essential to the villagers’ battle skills. It is implied that when the murderous adventurers attack the town, this same ceremonial drug empowers the people of Bacurau to fight back. They defend their turf with the coordination and grace with which they mourned their dead and fed their children. This continuity between care and self-defense shifts our understanding of the common-sense binaries that pit violence against peace, civilization against savagery (whether noble or monstrous). 

The coordinated struggle by the people of Bacurau is yet another aspect of their utopian futurity. But it is also a link to their past. Their current battles are saturated with what Walter Benjamin called the “retroactive force” of class struggle – “As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism, the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history”. As Fabio Andrade notes, hidden in the lyrics of Bacurau’s funeral chants are the names of Brazilian martyrs and activists who have been assassinated by authoritarian forces. Against those who would bury and silence the struggles of the oppressed, Bacurau’s museum memorializes their efforts in photographs and momentos, as well as by keeping an arsenal of weapons that can be mobilized as fresh struggles arise. In fact, one of the battles of Bacurau’s climax is fought in the museum itself. After the people of Bacurau triumph over their attackers, Dominga’s wife orders the gore-strewn floors of the museum to be cleaned, but she insists that bloody handprints be left on the wall, as a memorial. 

The point in Bacurau, then, is not to restore peace and order, but rather to understand that violence is not a monolith. The violence of the invading killer tourists signifies colonial, masculine acquisitiveness and brutality. On the other hand, the force with which the people of Bacurau fight back is contiguous with feminine mutual aid and social reproduction. Without this distinction, there is no possibility for self-defense or even historicizing anti-colonial struggles. As Jocimar Dias Jr. argues, the science fiction scenario that Bacurau presents allows it a temporality that encompasses the uprisings of “history as it has already happened.” [5] This is in distinction from Eduardo Escoral’s critique of Bacurau’s militancy by way of comparing it to that of Bolsanaro’s militias. But I want to further argue that the “violence” of Bacurau, whether it indicates past or future rebellion, is incomparable to that of Bolsanaro’s profoundly elitist, authoritarian aggression. Rather, it is an extension of social reproduction, the possibility of collective survival and flourishing.

With this realization, the deceptive simplicity of Bacurau is shed and we must recognize the film as both “social thriller” horror and a complicated meta-Western. Rather than pitting the resourceful masculine loner against the helpless feminine collective, Bacurau argues for a futurity in which feminized social reproduction is weaponized against our enemies. In this remixed utopia, both nurturing and self-defense, individuality and collectivity thrive. 

Author bio: Johanna Isaacson writes academic and popular pieces on horror and politics. She is a professor of English at Modesto Junior College and a founding editor of Blind Field Journal. Her book Stepford Daughters: Tools for Feminists in Contemporary Horror is forthcoming from Common Notions Press. She is the author of The Ballerina and the Bull (2016) from Repeater Books, has published widely in academic and popular journals, and runs the Facebook group, Anti-capitalist feminists who like horror films. More info can be found here: https://mjc.academia.edu/JoIsaacson

[1] Katz, Cindi. “Vagabond Capitalism and the Necessity of Social Reproduction.” Antipode, vol. 3, no. 4, Sept. 2001, 209.

[2] Debruge, Peter. “Film Review: ‘Bacurau.’” Variety, 15, May, 2019.

[3] Bittencourt, Ella. “Interview: Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles.” Film Comment, 21, May, 2019.

[4] Guaraná, Bruno. “A Few Years from Now” in Western Pernambuco: Bacurau’s Vision of the Future.” Film Quarterly vol. 74, no. 2, 2020, 79.

[5] Dias Jr., Jocimar. “Bacurau as Science-Fiction Revenge Fantasy.” Film Quarterly vol. 74, no. 2, 2020, 86.

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