A man spends a decade of his life toiling from one dead-end job to another, getting treated like crap by his employers, gradually realizing that this is what being working-class in Brazil (or anywhere) means, and turns his life’s struggles into something that can be transmitted to another person by keeping his diary. But it’s only entirely clear that this is the trajectory of Brazilian directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchôa’s “Araby” once it ends.
This is a film about middle age, the road, and disillusionment, but it begins with youth. Its first 20 minutes focus on Andre (Murilo Caliari), a teenager who picks up the journal of Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), a factory worker who has been seriously injured. But once he digs into it, the film belongs to Cristiano until the credits roll 70 minutes later.
Given the amount of time that passes in Cristiano’s life as he relates it in his diary and the fact that even more time goes by before he meets Andre, most of “Araby” is probably set about 20-25 years in the past. But something about its sensibility evokes the Beat and hippie countercultures more than the present. This is enhanced by the use of folk/ country singer/ songwriters Jackson C. Frank and Townes Van Zandt on the soundtrack and the fact that characters pick up acoustic guitars onscreen as often as possible.
Yet echoes from the mid-20th century go deeper. Cristiano’s attitude towards life seems reminiscent of Beat literature, especially in his embrace of male friendship and constant drifting. There’s none of Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs’ overt misogyny, but for long stretches, women disappear from “Araby.” Cristiano runs away from his girlfriend Ana after she delivers a monologue following her miscarriage, which ruins their relationship. Afterwards, he says, “We are the memory of a couple.”
The directors have a close focus on working-class life we usually associate with neo-realism (or ‘60s Cinema Novo in Brazil), but they don’t rub the spectator’s face in grit. Even the long scenes of men picking tangerines and talking while sitting on crates are carefully blocked and framed. The lighting often looks natural, but it’s subtly stylized. Uchôa and Dumans’ shots are deliberately poised, while still grounded in a documentary reality. Their debut as a directorial team, “The Hidden Tiger,” depicted the lives of five young men in a hybrid of fiction and documentary. That was where they met de Sousa, who essentially played himself in that film, and the process of creating the character of Cristiano in “Araby” was a close collaboration with him.
The directors acknowledge their film’s literary impulse. It’s inscribed into its very structure: a teenager reading another person’s diary, then dramatized. What we’re watching seems far more vivid than Andre’s imagination, yet on some level, it’s a merger between that and Cristiano’s words. If there’s one major weakness to “Araby,” it’s that the film doesn’t really care about Andre. He is just a device to get Cristiano’s story going. As a result, the first 20 minutes of “Araby” seem rather indifferent; it didn’t really capture my attention until Cristiano takes control of the story. The fact that this seems deliberate — the film’s title comes relatively late in it — does not make the beginning of “Araby” any more compelling.
“Araby” bites back at Brazilian poverty and the power structures that keep it in place, gently and slowly but unmistakably. Even though Cristiano doesn’t succeed in changing the conditions in which he lives, he does turn himself into an artist of sorts, inspired by a theater group at one of the factories where he works. At the end of his diary entries, he seems to have reached the end of his rope. The filmmakers serve up infernal images of factory life a step away from Werner Herzog’s depiction of the post-Gulf War Kuwaiti oil fires in his 1992 documentary “Lessons of Darkness.” The overtones of Christian depictions of Hell are obvious.
Turning his life story into something akin to “On the Road” doesn’t save Cristiano, but it allows him to communicate to at least one person — living a much different kind of existence — who empathizes. Dumans and Uchôa don’t offer the kind of faith that socialism would improve their characters’ prospects implicit in Ken Loach’s films about working-class life. Nevertheless, there’s a clear sense that something in Brazilian life must change coming from every frame of Cristiano’s story. And the directors prove they have a rare ability to make a flow of words really cinematic.
ARABY | Directed by João Dumans and Affonso Uchôa | In Portuguese with English subtitles Grasshopper Film | Opens Jun. 22 | Film Society of Lincoln Center, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 W. 65th St. | filmlinc.org