At first blush, the new Brazilian film Araby feels like a typical oh-so-sensitive imported movie, the kind, à la Il Postino, that Miramax used to market so successfully to mezzobrow filmgoers. We open with a teen — one of the mode’s moody, slim, soulfully troubled boys with a vast head of uncombed hair — biking alone on a mountain road, and the camera follows him as an old Jackson C. Frank ballad strums lyrically. We’ve been here before, you think; here comes the dysfunctional home, the mumbling self-pity, the romantic trial, the wistfully scored struggles toward self-discovery.
But the film, by writer-directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa, has something else on its docket, a far subtler tack that is both poetic and intensely granular in its depiction of life at the low edge of the Brazilian socioeconomic spectrum. At home, the boy, Andre (Murilo Caliari), is alone and unparented, watching over a little brother while his mother is away working somewhere unspecified. A caretaking aunt shows up periodically, and an aluminum factory looms nearby, covering the village with ash. The film is in no hurry, intersecting almost by chance with an introverted migrant worker who catches a ride with the aunt and the boy. Next thing we know, the guy drops dead. He is bereaved only by the aunt, who doesn’t know whom to contact. The boy goes to the dead man’s rented room to gather his few belongings, and finds a notebook.
The moment he starts to read the journal, more than 20 minutes in, the movie’s titles finally appear. The film becomes the migrant’s story and never looks back. Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa) is a fairly inarticulate working-class everyman, born in the outlands without opportunity and destined to struggle. With the modest journal entries narrating, we trip matter-of-factly through his life, from one horrible grunt job to another, a stretch picking tangerines, another excavating a limestone mountain for a new highway, wanderings and layoffs and screw-ups, a scheme and a prison stint. Cristiano moves often, sometimes for work, sometimes because he has to — at one point, driving on a night road, he runs over a possibly drunk man and rolls the body off the road and into a river. There are few bosses but many co-workers, buddies and sympathetic spirits also lost in the unskilled-labor wasteland, unable to forge lives because they’re busy surviving.
Araby is not acted so much as lived; no one in the film comes across as a trained actor (though de Sousa and a few others have some local indie credits), and I wouldn’t be shocked if most of the supporting cast were simply telling their own hard-luck stories when the filmmakers turned the camera on. The result is undramatic but sincere, a movie rich with the heartfelt stiffness of real people unschooled in how to fake anything well. You could think of the film as a documentary portrait of a fictional person, which immediately invites you to see Cristiano as a 21st-century paradigm, one of a quarter-billion-strong army of the forgotten. The difference is, you experience it not from the outside, but as personal memory.
Visually, too, it’s a simple piece of filmmaking, unflashy and respectful; people and places come and go for the ordinary, mostly reactive Cristiano, and only his looking-backward storytelling voice musters the mythic glow we all feel toward our own stories. He watches a romance blossom and tragically fade, then almost become resurgent. Eventually, working at that polluting factory, he writes about the caretaking aunt, and the boy — whom he’s only glimpsed, and for whom he feels sorry. We know then, of course, that he’ll soon die.
It’s a soft bolero of a film, painting a searing portrait of life for developing-nation laborers but coming around in the end to touches of loveliness and humanity we didn’t see coming. It’s free of self-pity, but rich in moral outrage at the state of the world.
It seems natural to assume that Dumans and Uchoa are superfans of Portuguese metamaster Miguel Gomes, whose own sprawling Arabian Nights (2015) is another kind of meditation on storytelling, memory and the slippery border between documentary and fiction. But Araby is a far more stripped-down affair, focused on one typical man’s view of his own aimless path and systemic misfortune.