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NYFF 2019: Bacurau, Varda by Agnès and The Irishman

Udo Kier and Sonia Braga in Bacurau

A number of cinematic styles, narrative modes, and political agendas collide in Bacurau, one of two South American films on NYFF’s Main Slate this year. Urgent, yet vague enough to feel timeless, the film depicts a form of unhinged white supremacy in the outback of northern Brazil. We’re told up top, quite ominously, that Bacurau takes place “a few years from now,” as if to suggest that the wholly irrational racism herein is just around the corner. An angry movie, at once frightening and funny, it’s bound to rattle viewers aesthetically, politically, or both.

Bacurau, a fictional town, is already at a crisis before quasi-colonialist maniacs show up. There’s little in the way of clean water, vaccines, or cell service. Their mayor drops by at random, dressed in an awkward suit in the rural heat, and offers nothing more than corruption with a smile. The remote area soon feels the presence of an outside force. A pair of “lost” bikers arrive on a recon mission on behalf of a group of Americans, and from there Bacurau takes a number of swerves best experienced on the screen.

There’s much to discuss about Bacurau, too much for an omnibus festival dispatch. What lingers most after one viewing is directors’ Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho’s portrayal of the white American mercenaries. Their imperialism is blunt, umissible, and yet purely abstract. The American characters aren’t looking to gain anything material – resources, land – in Brazil. They’re there to quench what appears to be a mindless lust for the blood of black and brown people. Theirs is a white supremacy for sport. They discuss kill counts the way one would in a video game. As viewers, we can’t comprehend their behavior as a quest for oil or gold. They seem possessed by an aberrant drive, one they can’t even explain to their victims. 

That ambiguity makes them all the scarier, and it adds to the film’s absurdist sense of humor. These aren’t mere greedy Americans; these are agents of an unpredictable chaos. Even the racism seems secondary to their desire for bloodshed. They discuss their whiteness briefly, and one refers to Bacurau as a “shithole town,” a perhaps unintentional echo of Trump’s 2018 comment on “shithole countries.” On the whole, though, these characters don’t appear preoccupied with their hatred. They don’t shout white-power slogans or denigrate the citizens of Bacurau as sub-human (one character even reveals he’s in Brazil because he simply can’t kill his ex-wife and get away with it). True zealots have convictions; to paraphrase Walter Sobchak, even National Socialism had an ethos. These characters appear too incoherent to have any beliefs outside of their love for slaughter abroad. Robbing them of a clear motive is the film’s most provocative move. We’re left to drive ourselves mad wondering why they – and those among us – commit acts of pure hatred.

The filmmaking here is alive with the flourishes of old genre titans. We get the star wipes of George Lucas, the split diopter shots of Brian de Palma, the literal music of John Carpenter. The mix of tones and the shifts in point of view give the film a mischievous, decidedly non-didactic quality. Bacurau may serve as a wake-up call for some on the disease of white supremacy, but it doesn’t exist to lecture on that or the state of Brazilian politics. It’s a rousing, outlandish movie, one that’s unafraid to introduce a flying saucer out of nowhere or cast Udo Kier as a cartoonish villain. It unfolds, at times, with the pace of an art-house western (à la Western from NYFF 2018) only to gear-shift onto violent, more populist terrain. It has the slow-burn, retro-revenge charm of last year’s Mandy, only with the psychedelic elements turned down (but not off entirely). 

Tellingly, Bacurau lacks a main character. An American version of this film would have likely elevated the contributions of a single hero. Perhaps this hero would also have a useless bit of backstory for “depth” – a custody or an addiction battle, perhaps. Bacurau doesn’t bother with any of that. It instead shows how a community functions as a single organism. It galvanizes, in part, by showing us how the disparate players within a neighborhood – the elders, the outlaws, the guy with a sound system – can coalesce to form a ferocious resistance.

Varda by Agnès is something of a two-hour retrospective on the irreplaceable Frech filmmaker, who finished this doc before her death earlier this year. Varda was truly “90 years young” when she passed. Here was an artist who exuded curiosity, spontaneity, and creative energy to the end; she became the oldest person ever nominated for an Oscar in 2018 for Faces Places (her first nom, nonetheless). One can scarcely imagine an indifferent or bored Agnès Varda. As she says here in Varda by Agnès, “Nothing is banal if you film people with empathy and love.” That line captures the Varda ethos nicely, and it may well become her signature quote. Varda by Agnès moves through the many eras of her career: Varda the photographer, Varda the French New Wave pioneer, Varda the DV documentarian, Varda the visual artist. The film operates as a long, well-deserved goodbye – a collection of greatest hits with some new tracks sprinkled in.

Of course, Varda would never deliver a TED Talk and call it cinema. She breaks down her work with the same visual inventiveness that imbued her films. An analysis of the tracking shots in Vagabond, for example, cuts to footage of Varda interviewing that film’s star, Sandrine Bonnaire, on a dolly track in the French countryside. Guests pop up in Varda’s world with the apparent spontaneity of a children’s show. Elsewhere, a still image of a photograph turns out to be a moving image of the photograph in a large drawer. Varda, as always, remains committed to the unexpected turn. She plays with the medium, bending it for the sheer aesthetic thrill of creation. Her approach would teeter on cutesy if one doubted, even for a second, her fundamental seriousness as a visual artist. 

Beginning with The Gleaners and I in 2000, Varda’s late-period films have an emotional intimacy also seen here. Varda became a character in her films with the advent of digital cameras. Unlike many established filmmakers, she didn’t try to tell the same narratives (only cheaper) with these new tools. Instead, her films turned inward; the cameras allowed her to film unexceptional moments at the end of a life. She found the beauty of her aging hands on a car dashboard. Varda by Agnès is a satisfying, if not altogether revelatory, end to this film cycle. Those who cherished Agnès Varda will cherish Varda by Agnès.

Another long goodbye, The Irishman offers a hypermasculine counterpoint to Varda’s final feature. Martin Scorsese has wanted to adapt the book I Heard You Paint Houses since 2007. Had the schedules aligned and the development deals gone through earlier, we’d have gotten a very different film. Scorsese and his three leads (Pacino, De Niro, and Pesci) are now in their mid-to-late-70s, and the VFX technique known as “de-aging” is now in its relative infancy. And so The Irishman we have is defined by two grim realities: aging actors and young technology. Knowing this, it’s tough not to wonder about The Irishman that could have been. In the late 2000s, instead of clowning around on films like Righteous Kill, Pacino and De Niro could have appeared in more able-bodied form in a 3.5-hour Scorsese opus. It’s better for your mental health, though, to not dwell on what might have been.

By now, those fond of The Irishman have a standard refrain when it comes to to the VFX: You get used to it. To be clear, “it” refers to the act of watching a geriatric actor uncanny valley’d to look decades (and, in one scene, half a century) younger. Sensorily, one can “get used” to just about anything over time (ugly fluorescent lights, noisy window units); that doesn’t make those things any good. The Irishman benefits from its massive runtime, in part, by giving us time to resign ourselves to digital De Niro. It doesn’t help that he appears in nearly every scene, and the tech looks markedly worse on him than the other leads. De Niro hasn’t been a very expressive actor in ages, and the digital sheen here makes his presence even duller. Against Pesci’s muted cool and Pacino’s bombast, he’s the film’s vacant center.

Writers like Bilge Ebiri have made strong arguments for why the patchy VFX actually benefit the material. The bug, one could argue, is a feature. I’m sympathetic to such arguments in other contexts. I’m reminded of the use of rear-screen projection in Hitchcock films: The effect convinced no one, but it gave his work a heightened sense of claustrophobia, of unreality. It helped his stories exist further in a vacuum, away from the movement of everyday life. Location shooting would have broken that spell. There’s a clear difference between such VFX, transitional and shoddy as they were, and de-aging faces. The eye remains a stubborn bullshit detector, especially when it comes to the human face. The Irishman’s artificiality is not a stylish accent in service of its story; it’s front and center, a $160 million “costly experiment,” to quote Scorsese from the NYFF press conference. 

A scene early in the film calls for De Niro, de-aged to his 40s, to beat down a grocer who gave his daughter a hard time. It’s a crucial moment — emblematic of the self-servingly violent approach Frank Sheeran took as a father. He didn’t protect his daughters, one of them later says; he merely frightened them. This sequence would have burned with shock and pathos in an earlier Scorsese movie. Here, it just feels unintentionally sad. De-aging can smooth the lines on De Niro’s face, but it can do nothing for his body, which is very much in its 70s. De Niro lumbers stiffly over the grocer, an elderly man with limited physical movement and a younger man’s avatar plastered on his face. Why put everyone — De Niro, the audience, the VFX team — through this?

When the eye spots an imperfection, it fixates. Because this isn’t a review proper, I’ve chosen to focus on this single facet of the film. To my eye, The Irishman is a compromised work, but it’s a work I’m happy still exists. You can’t, I’m told, let the perfect be the enemy of the perfectly good. The film, like Varda by Agnès, unfolds as a generous end-of-career summation of the director’s work. Perhaps, you could argue, the decade of delays gave Scorsese a greater appreciation for the film’s central concern: regret and the aging process. One can squint and see a different film: one about the impossibility of righting your past wrongs that uses a deliberately faulty de-aging technology to underscore our inability to go back in time. That certainly is a charitable read. But I don’t think Scorsese wanted stylized imperfection – I’m pretty sure he wanted it to look good. The Irishman has a great deal to admire, and it isn’t the full-on tech disaster some of us feared. Its final stretch in particular takes the Scorsese crime-saga into new territory. Still, I feel a duty to temper expectations on this one, given the near universal raves coming out of NYFF. If anything, the film may play better on Netflix. The small screen, I suspect, and hope, will be kinder to deep-fake De Niro.

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