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Helena (Helena Albergaria) is less than 24 hours away from the first step of her dream to open and manage a small local grocery store when she gets the bad news: her husband, Otavio (Marat Descartes) has just been fired from his stable white-collar job despite ten years of loyal service. Although Otavio is concerned about money, Helena convinces him to let her sign the papers anyway, and they get her store in shape for opening as he struggles with a job search. While Otavio's anxiety and depression are brought on by the sight of younger candidates and the feeling that his achievements aren't respected or that he's not being treated as an adult, Helena experiences an eerie sense of dread at her place of business, as various issues plague her storefront, including an eerie stain behind a wall, clogged pipes, missing inventory, and a ferocious dog lingering outside the building.
The most engaging of these plotlines is Helena's, although viewers who watch the film may feel her thread has an unfair advantage. The gnawing sense of dread that Rojas and Dutra manage to conjure up whenever Helena confronts something in her store is easily their most impressive achievement, as they always err on the side of subtlety and simplicity, without the bag of jump-scare tricks that so many American directors turn to almost reflexively. Everything about Helena's experience that is terrifying or bizarre is presented with plenty of room for the audience's imagination to fill in whatever sinister details they find most creepy; and it's fascinating to wonder what sorts of things went on in another imaginary movie that preceded this one.
Meanwhile, Otavio's story centers on his decreasing masculinity, as he goes from the breadwinner to a homebody, sleeping in and occasionally tasked with looking after their daughter. When he shows up at a job interview and discovers a woman doing a cheesy hiring script involving a balloon with a face on it, he feels disrespected and too old to be groveling for work, and is uncomfortable when a recruiter politely mentions the agency's package that includes therapy sessions for men who slip into a depression when they can't find a job. Unlike Helena, who confronts some exceptionally bizarre problems at her new business, Otavio's struggles are mostly that of impotence, as he finds himself stripped of any personal sense of dignity or influence. At times, Rojas and Dutra struggle to make Otavio's struggle as interesting as Helena's for this very reason, as the core of his story is the absence of great external struggle, but it feels like potent modern commentary.
Where Hard Labor really drops the ball is in trying to tie these two threads together into some sort of a cohesive whole (as well as a third thread, involving the professional struggles of the live-in maid they hire to watch the kid and clean the apartment). Although the movie builds to a funny final scene and is frequently effective in short bursts, it's hard to figure out if Hard Labor actually constructs any thematic points with its various stories and how they coalesce. Helena's struggle, especially its wild conclusion, feels like a metaphor for something, possibly her husband's lingering ego at seeing her become the primary breadwinner, or a need to completely own the responsibilities and challenges of running her own business, but it's hard to say how much they reconcile with her husband's reckoning, or how his point of view regarding his own situation changes as the movie draws to a close.
Cinema Slate's DVD of Hard Labor features nice, striking artwork with bold red text and lines over a black-and-white image of Albergaria wielding the sledgehammer. It features branding for the "Brazilian Film Series: Year One." The one-disc release comes in an eco-friendly Amaray case (less plastic, no holes), and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Hard Labor was shot on 16mm film, so the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer on the disc has a visible grain structure. In wider shots, this can make details look chunky and less-defined, but the effect never seems to be exacerbated by the disc's compression, and close-ups conversely have a very nice and naturally filmic appearance. Colors have a hint of "old photograph" quality to them, where greens have become slightly blue, and while nothing is lacking in saturation, none of the colors have that sharp, modern pop to them. That might sound like a complaint, but it actually gives Hard Labor a unique look. Sound is a perfectly functional Dolby Digital 5.1 track that actually captures a natural soundscape, with little to no stylization or artistic flourishes built into it. A 2.0 track is also included, and English subtitles are included for the Portuguese-language film.
There are a number of extras on the disc, although one in particular stands out as the most interesting. Four short films by Juliana Rojas and/or Marco Dutra are included, showing their individual and mutual journey up to Hard Labor. The first one, Doppelganger (24:12), a solo effort by Rojas, is easily the best thing on the disc, arguably even more effective than the feature presentation. The short, which follows a schoolteacher (Sabrina Greve) who is tormented by eerie visions of a double walking the halls of the school where she works, is a distillation of the things that worked in Hard Labor with none of the fat and less thematic ambiguity. Intensely creepy.
In looking up Doppelganger, I noticed it was actually made after Hard Labor, which made me think it might have an unspoken advantage over Dutra's comparatively older-looking films, but We Were Born Today When the Sky was Heavy With Iron and Poison (20:12), despite having a distinctly VHS-era quality to it, is actually even more recent. When I was watching it and thought it was older, the most interesting thing about it was its inclusion of a character who pitches Hard Labor to a film exec near the beginning, but it's less interesting when it's merely a reference to their previous work. This short, co-directed like the feature by both filmmakers, is a Gondry-esque trip to outer space featuring musical numbers and even home-grown animation. Cute at times, but feels amateurish and not particularly interesting compared to Doppelganger. The same can be said of Dutra's two solo efforts included here, Concert No. 3 (12:43) and Sunday (2:04). The former is a short about three members of a family dealing with their different crises in a manner that suggests what really appealed to Dutra is playing with chronology, and the latter is hardly a short at all -- more like a vacation video.
The disc is rounded out by a Making-of (17:44) that is nothing but fly-on-the-wall footage of production, with no interviews or commentary. It's also oddly low-res, with obvious interlacing. An original theatrical trailer for Hard Labor is also included.
Hard Labor is an interesting movie even when it's not a completely effective one, intertwining shifting power dynamics in a husband and wife's relationship, with the occasional dash of out-and-out fantastical horror. A unique combination for sure, one that gets an additional boost by the fantastic short film included on the disc by one of the film's directors that feels like another step forward. As a release, recommended -- I'll take flawed but unpredictable over the alternative any day.
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