How Split Diopter and Cinemascope Made the Weirdest Western You'll Ever See
Bacurau, from Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles, is a demented political satire wrapped up in a sci-fi Western.
Bacurau is a rare beast. As far as genre goes, the film, which had its world premiere in competition at Cannes this year and recently screened in Toronto, is thoroughly unclassifiable. It's a compendium of spaghetti Western, '70's sci-fi, social realist drama, and political satire. It's serious, horrifying, utterly deranged, and hilarious. It has no main character. It is, in short, a wild ride.
Co-directors Kleber Mendonça Filho (Aquarius) and Juliano Dornelles-Mendonça Filho's long-time production designer on previous films —Bacurau stars Bárbara Colen as Teresa, a young professional returning to Bacurau, the small, remote village in the outback of Brazil where she grew up. Teresa's mother, the town's patriarch, has just died, and the close-knit Bacurau is in mourning. But the worst is yet to come. After the town disappears from Google Maps and several other ominous episodes occur, it becomes increasingly clear that Bacurau's very existence is in peril. Then, all hell breaks loose. To say much more would be to dilute Bacurau's off-the-rails narrative turns.
No Film School sat down with Filho and Dornelles during TIFF 2019 to discuss their use of vintage cinematography and more.
"The film just goes off, almost like a seismograph. It starts off in straight line and then just goes, 'Whoa!'"
No Film School: The opening shot — really, the entire opening sequence — is an homage to classic Westerns and sci-fi films. Right off the bat, you expect a genre mash-up. But then you take us on this wild ride that exceeds even those expectations. How did you navigate between the many genres turns this film takes?
Kleber Mendonça Filho: I'm a cinephile, and I worked for many years as a film critic. I've been following films from all over the world, including from Brazil, for the last 25 years.
Brazilian cinema has a history of social realism and comedies, but it's not very intimate with genre cinema — you know, thrillers, Westerns, horror films, sci-fi. I wanted to bring that to the table for Brazilians. We are very much in love with American cinema from the '70s, and also Italian Westerns from the '60s and '70s.
The opening credit sequence is very much in the style of some of the films by John Carpenter — Starman and The Thing. We zoom into South America. We establish the geography, which is a classic way to open a film. From then on, we introduce the characters and the village. The first half-hour of the film is very much in the vein of social realism, but then the film begins to blur the lines. The genre elements come in and start to mess everything up. You see a flying saucer. The horses come in. The water truck comes in with bullet holes, and then the film switches gear and goes off into some other areas of genre filmmaking.
It was very tricky to lay down the basis of the film in the first half-hour, already giving some hints that something was not right. Then, the film just goes off, almost like a seismograph. It starts off in straight line and then just goes, "Whoa." Toward the end, it's wild and crazy.
NFS: The cinematography is very nostalgic. The zooms, the split diopter effects... you really don't see that anymore. Also, you shot on Cinemascope. Talk to me about all of these choices.
Mendonça Filho: Well, it's really strange because things like split diopter effects are readily available! I mean, if you call any rental house, you can get split diopters and they're part of the package. But for some reason — I think it's a style thing — you don't do split diopters anymore, and you don't do zooms very much these days.
It's strange the amount of attention that we get [for making these choices], not only in reviews but also social media—cinephiles reacting to the film. They find it really peculiar that we use zooms and split diopters, as if it was something very unusual. Zooms are just part of cinema language! I love them. I think it's when the film says, "You're watching a film. This is not a closed-circuit television. You should look at the details."
Also, going back to our love for American cinema from the '70s, one thing that we discussed extensively with Pedro Sotero, the DP, was that we would not have a Steadicam on this film. I used a Steadicam on Aquarius and Neighboring Sounds. I have nothing against it; it's an interesting tool. But for this film, we wanted to move the camera using only tracks. By the end of the shoot, the gaffer said we had laid down 1,300 meters of tracks for this film, in eight and a half weeks' shoot.
We went for Panavision lenses, which are not available in Brazil. They had to bring them from France and from Los Angeles. They cost a lot of money, but I think they brought a very interesting quality to the film. They create this tension between a very Brazilian film and a certain distortion that you associate with classic American films. The danger, of course, is in pre-production or while writing the script, you sound like some stupid academic generating strange theories about the image of cinema. But we're very happy with the way the film looks. People are reacting to this tension that we created, even if they don't quite understand why. I think we were very lucky to make the film exactly the way we wanted it to make.
NFS: The ensemble cast makes stars out of remote villagers. You have a very remote location. It does seem like you made the film you wanted to make!
Juliano Dornelles: Yes. We started to talk about Bacurau around 2009, when we saw some ethnographic documentaries made in Brazil. Some of them are very, very interesting, but most aren't. Most repeat a patronizing gaze about the kind of people that live in faraway communities, and how exotic they are. We wanted to make a film where villagers are going to surprise people that come from the big city.
Mendonça Filho: There's this [stereotype] about villagers being inbred, ignorant, psychotic killers. We made them the heroes in the film, and that's quite unusual in Brazilian cinema. Of course, we did this within the structure of a classic Western: it takes place on a single street with houses and a church and a school. The villagers find themselves being attacked by a band of outsiders.
Dornelles: But in our film, the invaders aren't Indians, as in the classic Westerns. We don't agree with this because it's simply not true.
NFS: Right, it's the other way around!
NFS: You two worked together in Aquarius, Kleber's previous film. How did you decide to co-direct this, and what was the experience of co-directing like?
Mendonça Filho: We have worked together for 16 years. On Aquarius, Juliano wasn't only the art director; he was a consigliere on the set.
Since we started talking about this idea for Bacurau together, it was never a question who would direct the film. We always wanted to develop it together and write the script together, which we did. And we ended up directing together.
We get a lot of questions [about how we split up our directing responsibilities]. Did Juliano do the dialogue? Did I do the action scenes? No. We really worked together all the time. I think maybe four or five times we had to split up scenes, but only because we had two camera crews on the second half of the shoot. So those were situations where we split and we did things separately, but usually we were together.
The best thing about the whole thing is that we're still talking! We still love each other and everything is fine.