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Review: Araby

(João Dumans & Affonso Uchoa, Brazil, Grasshopper Film, Opening June 8)

Araby opens with Townes van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning,” and returns later to the song, with its mournful, stripped-down arrangement evoking “the [wind] that blows/Down a lonesome railroad line.” Job-site guitar sing-alongs and a bluesy soundtrack are at the heart of Araby, which follows the laborer Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa) through a transient life that takes him out of prison and along the highways of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, living hand-to-mouth, job-to-job, and carrying almost nothing but his memories of former friends, lost love, and accumulated guilt. It’s a life out of an outlaw country song, with the spaces between the notes expressing working-class yearning—not least for the lost promise of Brazil’s stalled socialist project.

We begin on the industrial outskirts of Ouro Preto, where the aluminum plant churns away like a city at night. Andre (Murilo Caliari) cares for his younger brother, bedridden with a cough; a sense of slow suffocation is also present in his isolated life, with parents working in another city, and only remote connections to any wider social support system. This opening movement goes on long enough to establish Cristiano as a peripheral figure even in this marginal narrative, until the previously withheld title card inaugurates a flashback that takes up the rest of the movie.

De Sousa was one of the nonprofessional actors in João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s semi-documentary Hidden Tiger (2014). Araby is a more structured narrative—very loosely inspired by a story in Joyce’s Dubliners, as Dumans told Nicholas Elliott in Film Comment last year, and the book’s interest in “people from poor neighborhoods, people who don’t succeed, but who in the end have this brief enlightenment.” Cristiano narrates Araby through diary entries in which he struggles to form a coherent sense of himself from a life in which he has “packed products, made deliveries, picked tomatoes, harvested beans,” and “slept in bedsits, scrapyards, abandoned stores . . . The road was my home. I can hardly believe I lived that way for so long.”

The film unfolds at the placid pace of a weary worker’s break time. Cristiano and his fellow beasts of burden compare their stories about the worst places they’ve slept—on wood planks, on sacks—and the worst things they’ve carried: bricks, a live pig, salt that “burns your skin right off.” Old friends reappear in his life after years and years, or go their separate ways and sink (to paraphrase another Townes Van Zandt song) into his dreams. A romance with fellow textile-factory worker Ana (Renata Cabral) is the “closest thing to a family I ever had.”

In Joyce’s “Araby,” the infatuated young narrator races to a market whose exotic title promises new horizons, only to arrive late and feel himself out of place and “useless.” Cristiano’s “brief enlightenment” comes when he at last realizes that the literate Ana is the real story of his life, and this awakens him to other, larger narratives as well. On one job, Cristiano hears of an old man who once organized rural farmworkers and “even met Lula, can you believe it?” This distant, historically meaningful solidarity inspires Cristiano’s disgust at bosses who withhold pay from paperless workers, lay off ex-cons without severance, or stick him on the night shift, even as it may as well be a mirage (though the film was shot before Lula’s corruption trials began). In the film’s climactic sequence, Cristiano wanders through the man-made molten landscape of the Ouro Preto foundry, pouring out his exhausted body and soul in an inner monologue that harmonizes the film’s melodies of class-consciousness and forgotten-man melancholy.

Mark Asch has written about movies for Reverse Shot, The Village Voice, Little White Lies, and The Reykjavík Grapevine.