Hard Labor (Trabalhar cansa): Cannes Review

Curious mixture of sociology and horror needed to make up its mind.

A husband and wife trade financial roles in this uneven feature film debut from Brazilians Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra.

CANNES -- Horror elements delicately brush over a realistic tale about a middle-class Brazilian family facing economic difficulties in Hard Labor, an ambitious first feature written and directed by Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra, that promises more than it’s actually able to deliver. Strange things begin happening when the husband loses his job and the wife opens a grocery store; but apart from a few mildly disturbing events, little of interest is going on here and the film seems aimed more at critics and film festivals than international audiences.

In a prolonged set-up, a cast of humorless characters is carefully positioned in their social context.  Helena (Helena Albergaria), a serious housewife and mother of an equally grave little girl, plunges into the adventure of opening her own business, just as her white-collar husband Otavio (Marat Descartes) gets the sack. While he trudges to a series of humiliating job interviews, Helena hires young Paula (Naloana Lima) as a live-in maid and baby-sitter, then interviews candidates to work in her small grocery store. So much screen time is taken up describing the characters’ economic relationship to each other, particularly the awkward reversal when the wife becomes the bread-winner in the family, that the film could pass for a sociological study.

Enter a snarling black dog in front of the store; then a foul-smelling, black liquid that oozes out of the floor. A large tooth is found, then a giant dog collar that could have belonged to the hound of the Baskervilles. Disquieting, disturbing things no doubt. But what connection do they have to a story fundamentally about work?

Puzzling horror films are never very satisfying. Perhaps the mysterious elements are best viewed as the externalized expressions of a stressful, anxiety-inducing economy that swallows up everyone indiscriminately, from businessmen to housemaids.

The directors and many of the actors have been members of the Filmes do Caixote filmmaking collective, making award-winning short films for 10 years. Their familiarity shows in the self-assured direction of the cast. There is a darkness in all these “average” characters, underlined by low-key acting and the film’s sinisterly calm, measured pace.

Albergaria’s strong, courageous but somewhat heartless Helena is a woman with a perpetually worried look. As her frustrated, depressed husband, Descartes has a silent dignity that lends nobility to the rampant unemployment of our time. It is easy to satirize the pep talks of management gurus, but much harder to portray, as Descartes does, the suppressed rage of the downsized. Noteworthy in a smaller role, Lima is statically zen as the quiet young maid who is exploited as a matter of habit.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Un Certain Regard
Production company: Dezenove Som e Imagens in association with Filmes do Caixote
Cast: Helena Albergaria, Marat Descartes, Naloana Lima, Gilda Nomacce, Marina Flores, Lilian Blanc
Directors: Juliana Rojas, Marco Dutra
Screenwriters: Juliana Rojas, Marco Dutra
Executive producer: Maria Ionescu
Producers: Maria Ionescu, Sara Silveira
Director of photography: Matheus Rocha
Production designer: Fernando Zuccolotto
Editor: Gaetano Gotardo
Sales Agent: Urban Distribution International
99 minutes

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