Many filmmakers adapt books, but relatively few make movies that actually feel like books—that is, they achieve the sort of patience and interiority that come with reading. Judging from their second feature, Araby (which screens this week at the Film Center), Brazilian writer-directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa belong to this select group. Araby is literary through and through, from its ample voice-over narration to its self-conscious dramatic structure to its perceptive observations of time’s passing. Dumans and Uchoa encourage viewers to reflect on events as soon as they occur; one of their stylistic signatures is to let the hero’s narration play out over static shots of little or nothing happening. When characters do interact, they speak in a flat, declarative way that sounds like they’re reciting text. And the visual style evokes finely chiseled prose, with neatly arranged frames (which the directors generally hold for long enough to make a strong impression) that suggest complete sentences.
Araby takes its title from one of the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners (Dumans and Uchoa have explained that the film started out as a present-day adaptation of that tale), but the narrative form feels closer in spirit to an 18th-century picaresque novel. The movie follows a working-poor individual named Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa) over roughly a decade as he takes on various jobs all over the southeastern state of Minas Gerais. First seen serving a short prison sentence for attempted car robbery, Cristiano leaves jail determined to make an honest living. His integrity causes him to lose one job after another (though he loses some to circumstance as well), and as a result he’s often on the road, searching for work. Cristiano submits to all kinds of demeaning, low-paying labor; his jobs include picking tangerines in a small grove, breaking rocks along a motorway, doing custodial work in a brothel, stocking heavy supplies in a warehouse, and operating a machine in a factory. Dumans and Uchoa present each occupation in vivid detail, yet the longer Araby goes on, the more Cristiano’s jobs start to feel the same. The hero seems to recognize this—his narration (which comments on practically everything we see) has a tired, world-weary air to it.
In another turn out of 18th-century fiction, Araby opens with an extended framing device in which a teenage boy named Andre comes to find Cristiano’s journal; what follows is a visualization of the entries that Andre reads. Dumans and Uchoa introduce viewers to the boy before presenting Cristiano’s story. Andre is an upper-middle-class child who barely sees his parents since they’re always traveling for work. Most of the time, he and his brother are raised by their aunt, who’s also the company nurse at the local factory where Cristiano is employed as a machinist. Andre’s lonely yet comfortable life is essentially the opposite of Cristiano’s; the filmmakers spend almost 20 minutes on it so that Cristiano’s story arrives with the shock of the new. In fact Dumans and Uchoa practically begin the film over again once Cristiano appears; they introduce the character with extended shots of him walking, much like they introduce Andre with a long take of him riding his bike under the opening credits.
The filmmakers manage to sustain that sense of shock over the remainder of the picture, which runs just another 75 minutes. The short running time has a lot to do with the shock—Dumans and Uchoa cover so much ground (both literal and metaphorical) so quickly that it feels as if the film is always running away from you. Punchy and condensed, the Cristiano section of Araby plays like an art-house variation on such Depression-era Hollywood dramas as Mervyn LeRoy’s Three on a Match (1932) and William A. Wellman’s Heroes for Sale (1933), which also related many years of characters’ lives in just over an hour. That similarity may not be coincidenta—Dumans and Uchoa, in a Film Comment interview from last year, claimed to have found inspiration in U.S. culture of the Great Depression, citing the songs of Woody Guthrie and the novels of John Dos Passos as major influences. This sense of connection to Depression culture makes Araby subtly chilling, as it suggests that life is no better for the working class now than it was then.
Dumans and Uchoa don’t overstate the message, however. Araby is unmistakably contemporary in its fashions, settings, and physical behavior; the similarities to the past seem found rather than manufactured. The directors affirm the film’s topicality early on, when one of Cristiano’s coworkers on the tangerine grove raps about his plight as an itinerant laborer; they also invoke the recent past in this section of the film when Cristiano learns that one of the farm’s older workers had been a labor organizer in the 70s and 80s. Both the rapper and the old man make a substantial impact on the film even though they appear in it for a relatively short time. Moreover, they draw the film out of its introspective, backward-looking mood—the depictions of friendship are immediate and timeless. Near the end of Araby, Cristiano finds himself friendless for the first time when he takes a factory job in the small city of Ouro Preto, and when he registers his loneliness in the narration, it feels as though the film has been suddenly drained of its lifeblood.
Ironically, Cristiano’s stint at the factory may be the best job he ever gets. The pay is good, the hours reliable, and the management provides him with a decent place to sleep. He even joins the factory workers’ theater group, where a colleague encourages him to start writing down his stories. Like Cristiano’s journal, with its eloquent language and meditative observations, the theater group conjures up the vision of a working-class literary culture improbably thriving in the rootlessness of the 21st century. (In this regard, Araby is something of a spiritual cousin to Jim Jarmusch’s recent Paterson.) This vision reflects Dumans and Uchoa’s deep sympathy for their subjects, if not a utopian optimism. “We don’t want to represent the poor and marginal people as if their lives were only determined by violence or social conditions,” Uchoa told Film Comment. “We truly believe that these people can create something and think about more than mere survival. Of course reality can be shitty. We live in a world that make things difficult for poor people, but I believe that as filmmakers, we can sometimes reinvent reality and discover other possibilities.” v