Araby opens with a teenage boy biking home to take care of his sick younger brother, his parents nowhere in sight. He spends the next day sitting around smoking, sketching at his desk and helping his aunt around the neighborhood. Not long after, there’s a roadside accident and he’s made to get some belongings from the injured man’s house. That sounds like the start to a rote story of youthful ennui, but directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa scuttle that expectation by immediately shifting focus to a factory worker named Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), the man injured by the roadside, whose diary the boy stumbles onto by accident. Given the glut of films being produced nowadays, it’s all but necessary that fledgling filmmakers—especially in programs like ND/NF—attempt to buck expectation and grab a viewer’s attention.
In the case of Araby, Dumans and Uchoa do so by turning their lens to the margins of society and focusing on a character that would, in a different film, be a supporting figure at best. “Everyone had a story,” muses Cristiano in his diary, written during his travels around Brazil. Although the directors make that statement their (admirable) motivating principle, they don’t really make much attempt to enliven the material, resorting largely to dry voiceover and arthouse road-movie cliché to deliver the shambling, digressive story. By exploiting the gap between these vacuous formal choices and their chosen subject (Cristiano’s place in society as a factory worker), Dumans and Uchoa make a necessary point about both on-screen representation and the types of stories that get told on the film festival circuit. But apart from a few standout sequences (such as a nighttime drive that occurs in near-complete darkness) and some heartfelt bursts of musical energy, not much lingers beyond the implicit statement; and the film isn’t nearly accomplished enough to sustain a purely formal interest. Possessing neither narrative momentum nor documentary fascination, Araby is caught in a nebulous, painfully inert middle-ground, its larger intentions notwithstanding. Sometimes dull “by design” is just plain dull.
Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2017 | Dispatch 1.