Narrative strategies of "Bacurau"
Analysis reveals how the characters of “Bacurau” act with their passion and cunning, and how Brazilian culture and folklore become weapons to overcome the power of the first world gringos
This article about the script for “Bacurau”, awarded by the jury of the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, is a continuation of the analysis of “Três Roteiros” (Three Scripts), by Kleber Mendonça Filho, published by Companhia das Letras (read article of “Neighboring Sounds”), whose objective is to show the creation of characters and the narrative structures of a fiction feature film script, using a still new theory, the “semiotics of meaning”, called French or Greimasian semiotics. This theory allows establishing an aesthetic in the construction of the filmic meaning and characters.
Among the three semiotic languages of cinema, script, editing and photography, the script is a domain of the character, so much so that, in “Bacurau”, the characters' skin color or any other physical aspect is not described, because the what is at stake is what they “feel”, how they deal with the “urgency of the soul”.
Our analysis will run against three aspects of the script. How the characters are built that need to go deeper, through their passions, how the narrative strategy is used to surprise the viewer and how Brazilian culture, and its cunning and clever heroes, is used as a weapon to win a war against a warlike power, as in the cordel novels.
Even sharing the creation of “Bacurau” with a partner, Juliano Dornelles, in the script and direction, Kleber Mendonça's third film maintains its cinematographic characteristics, supported by his intuition to describe the sensitization of the characters through their passions and truths, such as it's the good movies, the ones that surprise us. And surprise is the weapon of “Bacurau”, from the point of view of narrative structure.
The script is a field of domain for the character, so much so that, in “Bacurau”, the characters' skin color or any other physical aspect is not described, because what is at stake is what they “feel”, how they deal with the "urgency of the soul"
Therefore, knowing how to write is knowing how to hide the character's soul (suffering) in his actions, as we will observe in the construction of the character Tereza. It is in the action that the suffering of the characters is exposed, through passions affecting them, such as the “resentment” of Dona Domingas and the “melancholy” of Teresa, the two most sensitive characters in “Bacurau”. The passions of resentment and rancor, as well as melancholy and boredom, are two models of passions that heavily affect the characters, permeate their existence, their presence.
But when the characters will act, then yes, it is with the culture that they will defeat the enemy, and the theme of the film appears. When they turn the game around, from the point of view of history, culture becomes an instrument of knowledge and power, of competence and performance of the characters in “Bacurau” to carry out a good sanction at the end of this adventure. They will use the cunning inherited from the strings of João Grilo and Chicó, characters from the popular imagination of northeastern Brazil, immortalized by Ariano Suassuna, and from popular romancers, in which the weak beat the strong by cunning and cunning, and not by force.
Our analyzes in the published scripts of Kleber's films will be in these two fields of creation, in the “character”, how the body affected by a passion feels emotions, and in the “narrative structure”, how the action game was organized to make the story captivating, tricking the viewer with a war, of water, to hide another ongoing war.
The surprise strategy
We started the script decoupage from the point of view of narrative structure, of how the surprise is programmed to work, and really surprise the viewer. There is a filmic aesthetic, established in the script, that there is always something hidden in the narrative, a truth that can implode at any moment. This way of hiding and then surprising, an intuitive tool that only good filmmakers use, now has a theoretical framework that explains how best to use it in stories.
Every good story, such as “Parasite”, “Neighboring Sounds”, “Rome” and “The Joker”, use the “surprise scheme” (see “The Passions in Characters”, Screenwriter Online) to structure their stories through unexpected revelations, programmed to be initially covered up, especially throughout the first act, then appear in the form of surprises in the second and third acts. A good screenwriter in the United States talks about his work showing how many surprise points it has. It turned into the feeling of the moment. Whoever knows how to build a good surprise can build a good script.
The strategy of the script for “Bacurau” was to establish, from the point of view of the structure of the story, a visible narrative, that the characters are living a “war for water”, guiding the viewer to this expectation to hide a truth. This narrative technique is called “implication”, a scheme to generate a stronger surprise, when the implication is broken with a “concession”, with unforeseen events that will arrive by surprise. In this case, that the war was not with the owners of the water, as was implied throughout the first act, but against more powerful enemies.
The “arc” of the “Bacurau” story goes through this “curve” of the ongoing water war, from a visible story, to an unpredictable, “concessive” ending, when the war that was hidden was much more dangerous, and not it had to do with the war over water, but for survival itself. This comes to be the big surprise of the script, which worked well in the film.
In the first sequence, where Teresa (Bárbara Colen) is hitchhiking in a “pipa truck”, with a huge tank of drinking water, bound for the city of Bacurau, and is faced with a scenario of war, of dispute for water with gunfire and deaths, implies that we are entering a narrative where there is a great armed conflict going on.
There is a filmic aesthetic, established in the script, that there is always something hidden in the narrative, a truth that can implode at any moment. This way of hiding and then surprising, an intuitive tool that only good filmmakers use, now has a theoretical framework that explains how best to use it in stories
This first sequence, with the driver talking to Teresa, also conveys information about this war, that Lunga, a character we don't know, is the leader of the rebels against the dam that prevents them from accessing water, and that there is a prize for their capture, because they attacked the dam a few months ago, killing four people. It conveys an idea of a lawless land, like the old American west, or the times of the bandit of Lampião. The important thing is to deceive the viewer with a story, and then show another.
This sequence of water will hide another war to come, another kind of enemy that is hiding around you, and that they don't know exists, until the first signs of strangeness appear. The water war removes the initial suspicion about what is actually happening without them noticing, as the city Bacurau has disappeared from Google, or the water truck arrived riddled with bullets, leaking water that was supposed to serve the population.
There is something hidden, which at any moment will reveal itself, a truth will appear. This action-level strategy helps generate “surprises” because every unsurprising movie or series today has no audience. Surprising the viewer is the best way to suck them into your narrative.
For the coming war will not be the one foreseen, involving, with the “owners of the water”, but against the very disappearance of people and the city from the face of the earth. It will be a war against professional killers who came to decimate the city, in a game where points are earned by killing defenseless and innocent people.
The surprise in “Bacurau” is that there is a group of people who are coming to kill them, as well as the surprise that the residents of Bacurau have a special skill, which is knowing how to hide. This truth also structures Clodoaldo's narrative program in “Neighboring Sounds”, when we know that there was a hidden revenge, that the feeling of the character was “hate”, that is, the truth comes by surprise, as in “Parasite” , “Rome” and “Joker”.
The question of “water”, for that city, appears as a metaphor for death, when the melancholy character Teresa is in front of her grandmother's coffin. After taking a “powerful psychotropic drug”, Teresa has a delirium, and sees the coffin trembling, but a lot of water comes out from inside, water leaks from all sides. Scene predicted in the script.
There is also the question of water making sense invisibly, through a fossil of a shark's mouth, whose teeth are still sharp, or through a huge dry dam, without water, where it should once have been a large lake. All of this together makes a game of implicative meaning, building up a very strong reaction when it's broken with a surprise.
The passions affecting the characters
Different from our analysis of the script for “Neighboring Sounds”, in which the story is structured in the narrative program of three characters, governed by different passions, the housewife Bia, affected by the passion of anger, the security guard Clodoaldo, by the revenge, and João, out of boredom and melancholy, the characters in “Bacurau”, do not develop narrative programs with passions that demand liquidation, like the passions of “guilt”, which guide the programs of Alfonso Cuarón's characters in “Rome” and "Gravity".
The many characters of "Bacurau" enter the scene with their damage and imperfections, as in the series "House", in which Dr. House acts under the suffering of physical damage and its imperfections, as the episodes have no connection with each other , it is not the continuity of a story, the character does not ask for changes. But he remains tense and affected by the passions in the same way that the characters who have narrative programs to work out, and who need the three acts if it's a feature film, act.
But a character needs to develop some depth for the narrative to be sensitive, and this role in the script is clearly that of the doctor Domingas, who suffers from the passion of resentment, the most visible, in relation to an old friendship with Carmelita (Lia de Itamaracá). Domingas has a past that affects her, and an endogenous, hereditary damage, which is alcoholism, which potentiates these passions.
But the filmed version includes a new protagonist, who is Teresa, who gains passions after the script is finished. In the script as it is, we do not identify Teresa's passion, which is “melancholy”, she appears and disappears like the other characters. But only three scenes were added to the script so that the character gained density through a passion and came to dominate the film's narrative. The first scene added is when Teresa calls Pack to sleep with her, and the one who gets turned on is her younger sister, who hears the invitation. In the original, she only seduces you discreetly, not a direct invitation.
The many characters of "Bacurau" enter the scene with their damage and imperfections, as in the series "House", in which Dr. House acts under the suffering of physical damage and its imperfections, as the episodes have no connection with each other , it is not the continuity of a story, the character does not ask for changes. But he remains tense and affected by the passions in the same way that the characters who have narrative programs to solve, and who need the three acts if it's a feature film
The second scene, which did not exist in the original, occurs at the end of the first act, when only Domingas appears with his wife (Domingas has an affair with a woman who lives with a man, inside her house, in a room next to hers. ), in the original script. In the final version of the script, Teresa is also sleeping with Package. In other words, now there are two protagonists. But how do we know this character is affected by a passion before an actor embodies that character?
For this, a third scene was added to the script, where Teresa's father talks about the people who have recently returned to Bacurau, and does not remember Teresa. She is the one who says she exists, when no one has remembered her. This invisibility of the character, like João in “Neighboring Sounds”, is a characteristic of a character affected by the passion of melancholy, which suggests an expression of sadness, of low potency.
We need, in the script, a scene like this to reveal the character's passion. We only know the passion that affects the character Cleo, the nanny of “Rome”, when she surprises, at the end of the script, saying that her feeling was of guilt and regret for wishing her daughter's death. Without this speech, we would not discover the passion that affected him, because the character was also of few words.
The change in the character Teresa, to gain depth in the film, was to apply a passion that could be revealed at some point. It wasn't the amount of action scenes that made the character Teresa appear, but her tensing strength, her passion tensions the character, which sensitizes her and the audience feels it without realizing it.
Characters like Teresa sensitize the public much more for the “feeling” they convey than for the “perception” we have of their actions. This is proof that “feeling” governs “acting” and that passions have different strengths. Passions like fear and anger, which are present in Package and Lunga, have no tensile force, like Teresa's feeling. She ends up dominating the film by her feeling and not her acting.
In the character Domingas, we clearly see her passion, because the film begins with her fury against the death of her friend Carmelita, whose life story of the two is summed up in those screams against each other who have already died. Her fury is the result of a great “resentment” for Carmelita, Teresa's grandmother. A photo with the two characters together reveals a part of the truth that was hidden in the screams against her dead friend at the beginning of the film. There is terrible damage on Domingas, as there was on Clara in "Aquarius".
Good characters like Domingas need to show their imperfections. But Teresa's melancholy weighed so heavily on the film that some students in a script class I teach even thought she was the protagonist.
Characters like Teresa sensitize the public much more for the “feeling” they convey than for the “perception” we have of their actions. This is proof that “feeling” governs “acting” and that passions have different strengths. Passions like fear and anger, which are present in Pacote and Lunga, have no tensile force, like Teresa's feeling. She ends up dominating the film by her feeling and not by her acting
The narrative for the water war has as protagonist an entire city, but the figure of the bandit, the lamp that fights against the water colonels is in Lunga, different from the past, when they fought and killed for the possession of the land. Lunga is the hunted cangaceiro, his head is worth money, but he is the defender of a defenseless little town. The rapper “Pacote” is an urban killer, acts as a biker, known as the Rei do Teco. Clips of him, where he kills people, have millions of views. Both characters are affected by the passion of anger and rage.
The story arc in three acts
The organization of the story in the script follows the concepts of the arc in three well-defined and demarcated acts, as in "Parasite" and "Rome", with a first act of presentation of the characters, which ends in the trampling of horses, in a scene very well done plot point. The scene of horses entering the city is a passage from one act to another. It is the surprise scene, which makes the spectator stop, interrupts the story, its progress. And restarts with new events.
The first act of “Bacurau” shows the characters and their affective contracts, the profile of a city and its culture, such as the wake and the funeral with its traditional cults, but also that the city is being attacked by the owners of the water. The kite truck arrives riddled with bullets. A weird drone flies over the sky. The city disappeared from Google's GPS. It was taken off the map. Fear prevails in everyone in the face of something that is coming with a lot of violence. The characteristic of the first act is to hide a truth.
The first act ends at night, when all the events started have been completed, the funeral, the introduction of the characters and the end of the program of Domingas, sleeping with his wife, and Teresa sleeping with Pacote. When many horses appear at night and invade the city, unexpectedly, the end of the first act and the beginning of the second act are marked. The event that marks the passage from one act to another has the characteristic of being a surprising, unexpected event.
The second act begins with the two boys taking the horses, who were from a farm, and they find the owners and children, brutally killed, while a pair of suspicious bikers pass through Bacurau, and also kill the two boys who took the horses. It's a turning point in history, but it's still suspected that the war is over water. When the foreigners are revealed, that the war would be with other people, we have a surprise from the narrative point of view. The hidden reveals itself.
The second act is marked by the complete revelation of what was hidden in the "cellar", by the revelation of the causes of Bacurau disappearing from the map, as in "Parasite", but also a preparation for another surprise, that of the third act, which must be stronger than those of the first and second acts. When the gringos are surprised by the population that seemed defenseless, and it wasn't.
The third act begins with a passing scene, with the day dawning, and scenes of rain in the caatinga. This is the scene that marks the passage from one act to another. The action begins the morning the hunters go out to invade Bacurau, and attack the house of the healer Damiano, who surprises them and kills them, discovering the “secret” that was still hidden from the residents of Bacurau. Bacurau then prepares his reaction.
Foreigners invade the city and have a “surprise”. Now, the surprise catches the antagonists, the bad guys in the story, who deserve to die off guard. The residents hide, set up a “spy hole”, a competence shown in the first act, appear from nowhere affected by an immense “anger” and desire for revenge for the dead of their families, and tragically eliminate all foreigners.
But the reaction occurs with a collective action by the city, and not by Lunga and Pacote, as was being implied. It wasn't the heroes who surprised the bad guys. It was an entire city that acted through its culture, with its astuteness of knowing how to “spy on the enemy”, a tradition that is part of the soul of the people of that place.
Culture and folklore as a narrative weapon
Bacurau's victory was a victory for the hero of the sertão. In the script, this “weapon” of the Brazilian hero against the powerful enemy is already foreseen, where Brazilian culture is used to defeat the power of the first world, not the open fight, but the one of surprise, taking the enemy from behind or without it see, what we call in the Northeast “killing by ambush”. This killing by ambush is our heritage. The Brazilian hero of that region in the Northeast is Pedro Malazartes, Cabeleira, Chicó and João Grilo, fruits of an imaginary explored in the northeastern cordel that the weak beat the strong for “smartness”. The characteristic of these heroes has always been that they are smart guys, since when Brazil was still a colony for those who arrived here, who needed to defeat the “knowledgeable ones”, with cunning and smartness they didn't have. And that's how Bacurau won the war, defending himself in the “ambush”, in the popular knowledge.
The weapon Damiano uses to kill one of the gringos is a medieval blunderbuss, a weapon used in the folklore of Pernambuco, which is no longer used, but in the film it becomes a powerful weapon, to value our culture as an instrument of struggle. Lunga is the “Cabeleira” of the cordéis (I made a film with Dona Militana, the keeper of the original Cabeleira story), who kills with a machete. Cabeleira was the terror of the Northeast for using the machete as a weapon.
Another way to use our culture as an instrument of action in the script, as a weapon in a war against a more powerful military might, is through food, our stew and our wild fruit juices from the Pernambuco countryside, and our fish knife . The scene, in the third act, in which Domingas awaits Michel's arrival, when everyone already knows that it's the gringos who are attacking and not the owners of the water, she awaits him with our “food”, our juices, and a knife fishmonger she touches Michel's face when he shows her his pretty imported knife.
Bacurau's victory was a victory for the hero of the sertão. In the script, this “weapon” of the Brazilian hero against the powerful enemy is already foreseen, where Brazilian culture is used to defeat the power of the first world, not the open fight, but the one of surprise, taking the enemy from behind or without it see, what we call in the Northeast “killing by ambush”. This killing by ambush is our patrimony
But the fishmonger scene was cut out of the script, and Domingas only welcomes him with our “Brazilian culture”. And this makes the narrative with good characters gain, in the film, political and social dimensions that act in a thematic way. If Teresa's melancholy gives density to the narrative, on the other hand, we have the cleverness of our screenwriters and directors in using the cinematographic aesthetic, as Glauber Rocha would say, with an “aesthetics of hunger”.Timeline of plot points in "Bacurau"
First act Second act Third act
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