Crafting a truly impactful, socially conscious film is a tricky act to pull off, one which requires a nuanced balance between palatability and sincerity, outrage and approachability. It is a small miracle that directors Affonso Uchoa and João Dumans accomplish this feat with aplomb in New Directors/New Films selection “Arábia,” receiving its North American premiere at the New York fest. The Brazilian feature — the sophomore effort of Uchoa, here collaborating with Dumans for the first time — doesn’t resort to the arthouse posturing one might expect of relatively inexperienced helmers. Instead, “Arábia” take up the storytelling energy that makes the work of auteurs like Miguel Gomes and Apitchatpong Weerasethakul so fresh and watchable.
To expand upon the comparison to Gomes and others, consider the nested structure of “Arábia,” which opens with a long take of a young man (Murilo Caliari) riding his bike on the winding mountain roads. Information is slowly doled out over the first act of the film: the boy’s name is André, the setting is the industrial town of Ouro Preto, he lives with his brother and receives regular visits from his aunt, a medical worker. Just as the narrative coalesces, André comes into possession of the notebook of a recently injured factory worker. The journal recounts the experiences that this new protagonist Cristiano has accumulated up to the point of his ill health; with the title credit and a surge of excitement, “Arábia” begins. The rest of the film follows the vagrant worker as strings together jobs towards his unwitting final destination of Ouro Preto, all the while reflecting on his ambitions and moral character, as well as that of those he encounters.
This extended prologue reveals itself to be the best form of narrative play: unexpected, and the antithesis of frustrating. Uchoa and Dumans take up the global cinematic interest in folk storytelling, the trend that (refreshingly) threatens to overtake miserabilist realism as the arthouse mode du jour. “Mysterious Object at Noon” (Weerasethakul, 2000) and “Our Beloved Month of August” (Gomes, 2010) are among the vivid, earlier examples of a trend in which the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred and stories are strung together in a fashion that tips towards the mythic. The repetition of shots of human bodies at rest suggests a metaphysical, dreamlike and collective quality to the narrative of “Arábia,” even if it is never so crudely stated as such — think “Cemetery of Splendor.” ND/NF stablemate “Happy Times Will Come Soon” is also worth a look to fans of this kind of film, although that picture is more experimental/challenging and less satisfying.
Nonetheless, Uchoa and Dumans do justice to the social reality of Ouro Preto and the other rural regions that Cristiano passes through. Cristiano’s voiceover dominates the soundtrack as André reads the character’s journal entries, conveying a burgeoning consciousness of his own existence as labor and as a man (the latter often reduced to the former). This awareness is most joyfully communicated through a ballad at the heart of “Arábia,” a single shot in which Cristiano summons his inner Phil Ochs and essentializes his moral struggle to stay away from crime and “easy money” through song. The situation is undoubtedly hopeless — the character is but one lowly cog in the industrial complex, with his destination clear from the outset. However, musical moments like this centralize the joyful Brazilian energy that powers the film’s folk spirit, and “Arábia” is certainly replete with music.
As with the recent spate of Brazilian films to hit international festivals and cinemas (not to mention the features that, as a consequence of visibility, mostly bounce around Latin America), “Arábia” is evidence of the exemplary technicians available to filmmakers of the continent. The lensing on display here — attributed to director of photography Leonardo Feliciano — is no exception. Cristiano’s life as a transient laborer has the character crisscrossing the countryside, all encapsulated through a series of extreme long shots that vary from tangerine orchards to highway construction and industrial furnaces. Equally as striking are the film’s interiors, which are rendered with an Ozu-like solemnity and are often framed through doorways. The cinematography manages to effectively accentuate the inner lives of its subjects without coming across as overly ornate.
As the last shot fades to black — one of those “This movie couldn’t end other way” shots — I found myself pinned to my seat, savoring a final turn which ties up the themes of the film, if perhaps not the narrative loose ends. It is an end note that rewards the metaphysical suggestions laced throughout “Arábia” and one that ensures a lasting dignity for nameless laborers beyond the ones depicted in its hundred-minute runtime. More than anything, “Arábia” proves that socially conscious cinema can also be an escape; not just for its audience, but also the people it depicts. [A-]