Araby: A Road Movie Driven By Economic Necessity, Not Wanderlust

A new film follows a working-class everyman through the margins of Brazilian capitalism.

Michael Atkinson July 5, 2018

Araby follows a wandering worker named Cristiano who makes his way through Brazil’s unskilled-labor wasteland. (Courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

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.

It’s a soft bolero of a film ... free of self-pity, but rich in moral outrage at the state of the world.

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.

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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