“Araby” is set in southeast Brazil, and its dialogue is in Portuguese. But the first words heard in it are in English. As a handsome teen, the movie’s presumed protagonist, bicycles down a stretch of thruway untroubled by auto traffic, the beautiful, moving 1965 folk ballad “Blues Run the Game,”by Jackson C. Frank, plays on the soundtrack. “Wherever I have gone,” Frank sings, “the blues are all the same.” And this movie, written and directed by João Dumans and Affonso Uchôa, sees “the blues” as a universal language and condition.
André, the cycling teen played by Murilo Caliari, lives with his younger brother and his aunt Márcia (Gláucia Vandeveld) in a glum factory town, where Márcia works as a nurse to laborers. André has no friends his own age, and not much to do. His parents are not just absent, but not at all heard from (they “travel,” Márcia tells one of her patients). During one afternoon driving with André, Márcia spots a factory worker named Cristiano and offers him a ride. Small of stature, thin but muscled, Cristiano, beautifully incarnated by Aristides de Sousa, cuts an unprepossessing figure. A little afterward, the worker is felled in a factory accident, and goes into a coma. Sent to Cristiano’s quarters to fetch some of his possessions, André comes upon a spiral notebook containing a journal. He reads it.
And it’s here that the film properly begins, as an account of ten years of Cristiano’s life, narrated through the journal pages. An auto theft done on a lark in his teens nets him a year and change in prison. Once sprung, he wanders the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, picking fruit for no money, then working on a road project. Cristiano’s human connections are with the old friends who helped him get the work; of an evening they’ll get together, pass around a guitar and sing songs. After a grisly auto accident puts him in fear of another prison stint (the Frank song plays again, this time on the truck’s radio before the crash), he flees from a job renovating a brothel. Then, while working at a textile factory, he falls in love with one of his supervisors (Renata Cabral). The affair ends, but they maintain a correspondence after Cristiano arrives at his current job. Cristiano’s work and life go on, until they don’t. “Araby” doesn’t show the event that caused his coma, but these moments leading up to it help to expand its meaning.
The directors have a refined style — the shooting and editing tell of a sensibility informed by Robert Bresson, the Dardenne brothers and Cristian Mungiu — but it doesn’t always fully pay off. When Márcia speaks to André in the hospital, she’s artfully posed in the frame, but she also looks like she’s talking to the window. And yet, thanks to Mr. de Sousa’s superb performance, the movie often convincingly portrays not just the exploited condition of laborers such as Cristiano, but the nagging sadness of life itself.