As its protagonist, the ex-con Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), roves from job to job in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Araby lingers at the threshold of one story after another. The point (both social and existential) is that the thresholds remain uncrossed, and that his life is one of in-betweens and narrative counter-intuition. The misleading opening section of the film—a test of the audience’s patience for Robert Bresson-influenced affectations—focuses on André (Murilo Caliari), a teenager somewhere between adolescence and grown-up responsibility, who lives with his sick and often bed-ridden younger brother near a steel mill. After an unexplained accident leaves a worker in a coma, André is sent to collect the man’s belongings. This man, as we learn, is Cristiano. The larger part of Araby (drolly indicated by a title card that comes more than 20 minutes into the movie) represents the text of his spiral-bound notebook, scribbled for some kind of creative writing class.
In a philosophizing voice-over, Cristiano recounts his years of itinerancy and inconsequence: his prison stint for car theft; his time as a paver, trucker, tangerine picker, and brothel handyman; his relationship with a co-worker (Renata Cabral) at a textile plant; how he was cheated out of money by farmers; how he ran over someone on a dark road and hid the body in a ditch out of fear of being sent back to prison; how he came to work at the steel mill; how, at each of these moments of burgeoning tension or conflict (redolent of various heavies of 19th- and early 20th-century literature), he had to up and leave. Dumans and Uchoa intersperse painterly shots of night tables and roadsides and songs about life on the road howled by Cristiano and his buddies on out-of-tune guitars. If the duo has something interesting to say about class, it’s that fulfillment and dramatic convention are privileges. Not that Cristiano is much of a compelling presence on his own. Like so many figures of blank ennui in the structure-centric, post-neo-realist cinema of the festival circuit, de Sousa—a non-professional actor who co-starred in Uchoa’s 2014 film The Hidden Tiger—has his true calling in playing poker.
Araby shares a common problem with other formalist objects of the deep arthouse—that is, for all of its flouting of mainstream style and storytelling, it’s basically an academic artwork that begs to be graded and read (or at least read about) more than watched. For regulars of that particular movie demimonde, the reference points are obvious and limited, from the rigorous shot compositions of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet to the impoverished dreamworlds of Pedro Costa. (One can feel Costa’s poetic influence in the listlike back-and-forths between Cristiano and the men he meets along the way, rattling off the places they’ve slept and the things they’ve hauled on their shoulders; of the latter category, cement bags, roof tiles, and live pigs are said to be the worst.) Araby ends on a strong note. It’s hard not to make a steel mill look hellishly awesome on camera, and Cristiano’s final job matches his increasingly dejected voice-over with an infernal texture and scale. But, like his life of roads not taken—or all of our lives of toil and frustration, per Dumans and Uchoa—the film is far less than the sum of its possibilities.