Film Review: Araby

'Araby' hauntingly combines social and poetic realism in its affecting tale of the political awakening of an itinerant Brazilian laborer.
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Araby, the latest docudrama from the filmmaking team of João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa, leavens its grittily observed realism with unexpectedly poetic lyricism, thereby offering viewers an empathetic, but never overtly mawkish, glimpse into the life an itinerant Brazilian laborer. It’s also a bit structurally sneaky, since the first 20 minutes of the film center on the daily routine of André(Murilo Caliari), a middle-class teenager living on the outskirts of a metalworking factory in the coastal city of Ouro Preto. Only near the end of this extended prologue are we almost offhandedly introduced to Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), who will soon take over as the peripatetic protagonist (and narrator) for the rest of the film.

This abrupt handing-off of the narrative focal point is expedited by André’s discovery of Cristiano’s spiralbound notebook, recounting his decade-long travels and travails across Brazil, after an unspecified accident leaves Cristiano unresponsive and bedridden. The raison d'être for this memoir (not to mention the identity of the “you” to whom it repeatedly refers) slowly emerges over the course of the film. Lest we remain nonplussed about André after his sudden departure, Dumans and Uchoa circle back to him in the last reel, showing him this time from Cristiano’s perspective, giving us some much-needed context for the rather oblique opening scenes.

The protracted travelling shot of André bicycling up a steep mountain road that begins the film is set to Jackson C. Frank’s classic folk tune “Blues Run the Game.” Its evocative refrain (“Wherever I have gone/The blues are all the same”) already almost subliminally alerts us to the cross-cultural (if not universal) implications of the precisely situated events that are about to unfold. Throughout Araby, the onscreen performance of musical numbers in various scenes will allow us limited access to the inner worlds, the fleeting moods and ardent desires, of the respective singers.

The invocation of Frank’s song also points up the impact of foreign (in this case American) culture on the filmmakers. Indeed, Araby reportedly began life as a free adaptation of James Joyce’s short story of that title from the collection Dubliners. While almost nothing of Joyce’s source material remains, the film does share Joyce’s belief in epiphany, a moment of sudden revelation or insight, often gained after much hardship and (self-)denial. Dumans and Uchoa give that moment of awakening for Cristiano a political valence that isn’t entirely out of keeping with Joyce’s original intentions. But Araby stays so grounded in acutely observed behavior, while still sufficiently elliptical in its storytelling methods, that it successfully avoids getting up on any particular soapbox.

It’s therefore with a certain measure of suitable irony that this tale of slow-burn political awakening concludes with all the unsettling ambiguity of a dream: inchoate feelings of guilt and pursuit, isolation among the darkening woods, a world lit only by the guttering flicker of firelight. The scene somehow suggests Dante by way of Franz Kafka. Whichever way you choose to read these perversely polymorphous final moments—as existential parable or objective correlative for Cristiano’s post-accident condition, among other possibilities—it’s difficult to imagine that you will walk away from Araby unmoved.

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