The annals of American cinema are dedicated to heroes — the men and women who stood above the rest, conquered fears, surpassed expectations and bravely paved new paths. My local multiplex is never short on these testaments to the mental and physical strength of a single human, and, unsurprisingly, our contemporary film canon is largely a shrine to the representation of good triumphing over evil, often against all odds.
While there’s certainly power in buttressing tales of hope and heroism, what do we know about the people who never stood above the rest or blazed new trails because they never got the chance to?
Last year, before the North American premiere of their film Araby, Brazilian filmmaking duo Affonso Uchoa and João Dumans told Film Comment, “We believe in the greatness and strength of the ordinary people. While they’re usually in a dark corner of real life, it’s cinema’s duty to record some memory of them.” This is fundamentally at odds with a traditional notion of three-act cinema, but Araby, a soulful film about a poor laborer, has the profundity to understand that not all lives have three acts, that there is power in the simple notion of recognition.
The film opens as a pint-sized portrait of a poor family in Ouro Preto, Brazil — a town known for its metal and mining industry. The youngest child is ill, presumably affected by the adjacent aluminum factory, and his brother Andre takes care of him.
But 20 minutes in, Araby hangs a ricky. A worker, Cristiano, is found unconscious near the family’s home. After being sent to collect his things, Andre finds Cristiano’s diary and begins reading it before the title “Araby” abruptly appears, bifurcating the film into two distinct, and seemingly unconnected, concentrations: 1) the modest life of Andre’s family, and 2) the last couple years of Cristiano, a 20-something transient whose adult life was dictated by available labor.
While the narrative never returns to Andre, the film’s opening 20 minutes have a significant bearing over what follows. Knowing that the recounting of Cristiano’s life succeeds his sudden coma, Araby isn’t just the story of a man, but an ode to a man whose life may be over.
Since the source of Cristiano’s life is his own diary (translated through Andre’s readership), viewers are left to discern whether the ensuing events as presented are a refraction of Andre’s interpretations, meant to be factual, or that of an unreliable narrator. But unlike another of this year’s films narrated by a man’s diary, First Reformed, I think Cristiano’s diary is meant to be more of a utilitarian framing device than a means of character development — a story within a story, like The Princess Bride if it never returned to Peter Falk and Fred Savage’s characters.
But the diary, the telling of Cristiano’s story and its regards to Andre’s existence is significant beyond any narrative utility — here, the story-within-a-story framing is a statement about lives lived in the shadows, and how the simple act of finding a journal can create history. While the subsequent 75 minutes may eclipse the opening, Andre curiously cracking open Cristiano’s diary governs over the entire film.
From this point on, the film is a linear series of moments in Cristiano’s adult life that together weave a tapestry of a poor Brazilian vagabond, migrating from one laborous job to the next. These vignettes compound to become a portrait of a life lived under the oppression of Brazil’s working conditions. Cristiano’s diary is a story of the lifestyle fostered by poverty and the exploitation of labor, as well as a lament of the lifestyle these conditions can’t support.
Cristiano narrates his own story, with a directness that resembles the rigor of Tony Leung’s Chow in 2046, if more sedate. He says the diary’s impetus was to recount his time with Ana, a woman he met at one of his sundry places to call home. Their time together makes up little screen time, but its emotional reverberation extends to the closing shot. In his own words, “The closest thing I ever had to a family was Ana. But it was just close, and was all a little sad.”
Most of the film centers on Cristiano and his fellow workers. If not on the job, they’re playing music for each other or passing along folkloric myths about laborers of yesterday. One unassumingly poignant moment observes a friend of Cristiano’s reading a loving note sent from his mother. As the others listen intently, it’s clear that any connection to the outside is a powerful record of another type of life.
Through Cristiano’s narration, Uchoa and Dumans allow the character to tell his own story. What’s written in his diary is not a marketed package meant for others to read, but a distillation of his emotions. Thus, the filmmakers’ camera follows suit, avoiding movement where unnecessary. Instead of manifesting Cristiano’s inner emotions through visual kineticism (i.e. zooms, shaky handheld shots, etc.), Uchoa and Dumans provide an empirical account of the diary.
In his piece for Reverse Shot, Nick Pinkerton mentions the film’s “preponderance of locked-down long and medium-long shots with occasional almost Bressonian inserts of, say, hands operating a carnival game or a broom traveling over a brothel floor.” Though the critical tendency to use “Bressonian” has, like “Brechtian”, nearly asphyxiated it of meaning, it was impossible to watch the aforementioned scenes, or an early exchange of keys between hands and not think of L’Argent’s insert shots. Uchoa and Dumans, like Bresson, often hold their shots for a beat longer than the contemporary vernacular would advise.
This holds true for the entire film, be it the opening shot of Andre riding a bike down a hill on the outskirts of Ouro Preto, held for the entire length of Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game,” or any given gaze at a resting, off-the-clock Cristiano. Uchoa and Dumans are routinely gracious enough to let viewers stare at a perfect patch of light sneaking under a closed door or down a stairwell; cinematographer Leonard Feliciano’s lens turns a tangerine farm positively painterly and a stacked shelf becomes a still life.
Cristiano is played by Aristides de Sousa, a non-professional actor who also appeared in Dumans and Uchoa’s previous collaboration, 2014’s The Hidden Tiger. “We really wanted to work with Aristides de Sousa again, but this time we wanted to write something for him. We wanted to see him act,” Dumans told Film Comment. De Sousa joins fellow non-professionals Meinhard Neumann (Western) and Brady Jandreau (The Rider) as three standout lead male performances of 2018 thus far. Each have a photogenic reticence, a face that, willfully or not, projects a life lived somewhere south of Easy Street.
Uchoa and Dumans’ distanced, matter-of-fact portrayal of their vagabond renders Araby an elusive and open film. It’s particulars aren’t always announced, because — as with Bresson — the text ask viewers to meet it where it stands.
The films that have most resonated with me over the past year — like Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper, Lucrecia Martel’s Zama and Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In — avoid being messages circumscribed by plot and archetypes, opting instead for explorations and contemplations of feelings. In fact, each film is an exploration of a different kind of unrest, whether it’s an unreconciled sense of grief, home or romance. Within these explorations, I gravitate to the simple act of watching… and, subsequently, feeling for these protagonists.
Araby is of this ilk; Uchoa and Dumans’ interest in unrest is the one inherent in poverty’s quiet smothering — the steady tightening of its vice and the fruitless attempt to stave off its extinguishing. While stationed at the tangerine farm, Cristiano says he learned the rhythm of the earth: “We sow so much, but reap so little.”
Shawn Glinis (@MrGlinis) is a freelance film critic. He’s a lifelong Midwesterner with a BA in film studies and an MA in media studies.