Stories We Tell
by Nick Pinkerton
Dir. João Dumans and Affonso Uchôa, Brazil, Grasshopper Film
Araby, a film that spends much of its runtime expressing the busy inner life of an outwardly placid man, is dedicated to the principle that appearances can be deceiving, a truism borne out in surprising ways by the movie itself, a skin-shedding thing that defies easy taxonomy.
The second feature collaboration by João Dumans and Affonso Uchôa, here operating for the first time as a co-directing and co-writing team, Araby does not to begin with seem like it will be particularly heavy on narrative incident. Its best candidate for a protagonist, teenaged Andre (Murilo Caliari), is a glowering introvert introduced under the film’s opening credits, wending his way along a mountainside road on his bicycle to the tune of “Blues Run the Game,” a song popularized by others, including Simon and Garfunkel and Nick Drake, but here sung by its originator, American folk musician Jackson C. Frank. Andre lives near an aluminum factory in rural southwestern Brazil with his younger brother, sick with an undisclosed ailment that may or may not be related to the proximity of heavy industry and the sooty debris that collects on their windowsill. We learn that their parents frequently travel, and we learn that the woman who comes to look after them is an aunt, but none of this do we glean from Andre himself, for he is closed, withdrawn, and friendless, given to smoking alone in the dark and thinking who knows what.
Then, almost as soon as we’ve had a chance to acclimate ourselves to what kind of movie Araby is going to be—an “austere, quietly observational” work that “patiently captures the textures of youth in aimless isolation,” in film-festival booklet language—it has become a different kind of movie altogether. The pivot comes when Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), a factory worker of Andre’s aunt’s acquaintance, drops comatose and unresponsive under unclear circumstances, and Andre, on being sent to collect the stricken man’s personal effects, runs across Cristiano’s journal. Shortly thereafter the journal becomes Andre’s reading material, and a little over 20 minutes into Araby’s runtime Cristiano’s story becomes our movie, with the diarist’s voiceover narrating the events of his footloose life as a peripatetic menial laborer traveling inland Brazil as they are depicted on-screen in images of delicacy and dereliction.
One recurring scene is that of Cristiano, by himself, slumming along on the shoulder of a broad road, on his way to nowhere in particular. This is de Sousa’s second film role following The Hidden Tiger (2016), written by Dumans and directed by Uchôa, and the accustomed ease of his performance is such that it is easy to forget that it is a performance at all, even though his work here is full of intuitive accents, found in the gentle, almost courtly manner with which he works up the nerve to ask a coworker on a date, or the way he arcs his hand back over his shoulder to, without looking, knock his cigarette ash out of an available window. Dumans and Uchôa have referred to the actor, recruited as a nonprofessional, as their James Dean, and I don’t think they’re entirely joking, for they recognize how de Sousa, like Dean, radiates loneliness, effortlessly anchors images of outsider dejection—and though their film has a strong formal framework, it by no means disdains direct emotional appeal. It is not such a very far distance, then, from Dean hunched and shivering atop a boxcar in East of Eden (1955) to de Sousa on the side of a highway in blackest night, his furtive and forlorn face exposed for a moment by the high beams of a passing car before disappearing again.
The performances and out-of-the-way location shooting contribute to the film’s sense of veracity, and its visual approach—a 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—doesn’t alter radically with the jump into Cristiano’s story, but with the introduction of voiceover slippage between word and image starts straightaways. Much that we see is not described but rather might be inferred from Cristiano’s narrative by an imaginative reader, and as to whether what we’re watching is a flashback of actual events or a kind of mental movie playing out in Andre’s mind is never exactly clear. Like Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time it Gets Dark (2016), another recent small marvel of storytelling transmogrification, Araby is a film that, in its own way, plays with the deployment and cross-examination of narrative strategies.
On the face of things, the action picks up only slightly once Cristiano becomes the focus of the film. He drifts between odds jobs, teams with one traveling partner then moves on to another, falls in love with a woman named Ana (Renata Cabral), the aforementioned coworker, and then loses her. Ana is the crux of the story he proclaims his intention to arrive at in the first place, though she only appears in the movie about an hour in, after a lengthy and meandering preamble in which Cristiano describes “how I took to the road after I got out of prison.” Dramatic high points along the journey are underplayed, or muffled in ambiguity, like Cristiano’s own illness. One of the defining events of Cristiano’s life, the car theft and the subsequent stint in the stir, is represented entirely by one shot of the author sitting, head on his knees, in the courtyard, and another of his shirtless cellmate feeding pigeons through the prison bars. When he skips out of town following a car accident, the nature of what exactly has happened is left willfully unclear, the body—presumably human—unseen.
Much more screen time is dedicated to what we might describe as non-incident, or killing time—Cristiano and his various coworkers shooting the shit, playing cards, engaging in inebriate singalongs—placing Araby in the tradition of what has sometimes been called the hangout movie. It is tempting to say that it’s a film without much in the way of a story at all; tempting, but wholly incorrect. In fact Araby is a film of almost nothing but stories, one man’s story that itself is a warren of little stories, little testaments to the survival of the oral tradition on the margins of a digitized society. “Everyone had a story,” Cristiano proclaims at one point in voiceover, “Even the quiet ones.”
These little tributary stories flow into the main stem of Cristiano’s tale in all sorts of ways. There are elaborate jokes, like one about Brazilian laborers being flown into the Middle East—the movie apparently takes its title from not this but a James Joyce story in Dubliners, though the echo here of One Thousand and One Nights, that trove of tales, is apt if accidental. There are chance encounters, like that with an old, taciturn man, nicknamed Barreto (José Maria Amorim), whom Cristiano meets on arriving looking for work on a tangerine plantation near the Piracicaba River. The old man tells Cristiano his story in his own, modest words, then Cristiano’s coworkers tell quite another, of his history as a labor organizer, a story that contributes to the younger man’s developing class consciousness, which will grow into a source of both self-value and, finally, despair. After Cristiano drifts apart from his beloved Ana and arrives at the fateful aluminum factory, he receives a letter from her, and as he reads the text we hear a voiceover within a voiceover—a slip of her version of their story within his, and an eloquent expression of the role that narrativizing plays in igniting and stoking any love affair. (“In every word I write,” she recites, “My desire for you lives on, covering the body of this page that was blank and empty.”) Incapable of responding in kind, he finds another storytelling outlet in a workers’ theater group, the impetus for his beginning to keep a journal.
Perhaps the most persistently present medium for communication in Araby is folk song, a first-person form that lends itself naturally to storytelling. Along with the ditties banged out on old guitars by Cristiano’s musically inclined compatriots, the movie incorporates tunes by Brazilian roots musician Renato Teixeira, a mournful piece by the Tunisian composer and oud player Anouar Brahem, and of course “Blues Run the Game,” which gets a particularly rending reprise playing on the radio of the truck that takes Cristiano away from his love, very likely forever. “I’ll wake up older and I’ll just stop all my tryin’,” Frank sings—and you don’t necessarily have to know that the songwriter spent much of his later life itinerant and living on the skids to feel something of this tragedy, for the story is all there in the song, a heartbreaker of a theme for a movie that wholly earns it. (The version of the film that premiered at IFF Rotterdam and played the festival circuit used Townes Van Zandt’s “I’ll Be Here in the Morning,” replaced for rights clearance issues, but I can’t imagine even TVZ improving on the plangent perfection of the Frank tune.)
The fate that befalls Cristiano is not so far from this, a sudden cessation of vital force. “I feel like an old, tired horse,” he says, before beginning a monologue expressing a lifetime of exhaustion and disillusionment with the toil of shift-work and the scrimping to eke out the most meager of existences. Like Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941), Hasse Ekman’s Girl with Hyacinths (1950), or Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (1985), Araby is a film in the form of an inquest, a postmortem—or near postmortem—investigation, searching for the key to unlock an extinguished existence, as though any one thing could suffice to explain a death, much less a life. Araby offers not one narrative, but a bouquet of them. The last comes as Cristiano seems to lull himself to sleep on one final story, this with a bedside manner, as in the film’s closing moments, against the flickering of a fading fire, he sifts through the contents of a dream. And what more is there to say from here? Per Joan Didion’s much-repeated maxim, we tell ourselves stories in order to live, but we tell them in order to die, too.