Film

Is Brazil’s Oscar Entry ‘Hard Labor’ Comedy? Horror? Something New and In Between?

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Satire so pained and straight-faced some audiences might not pick it up, Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s how-we-work-now comedy of horrors pits one Brazilian family against everything wrong with Western economies — and, being pitiless, has them commit some of those wrongs themselves.

Helena (Helena Albergaria) strikes a deal to open a small grocery on the spot where a previous grocer failed just as her white-collar husband, Otavio (Marat Descartes), is axed from his office. The early scenes suggest the humiliations and gross-outs to come: Otavio suffers through job interviews and self-help seminars; meanwhile, mopping up the grocery, Helena finds dead cockroaches beyond what is reasonable — and what’s the stinking black fluid bubbling up from the floor? In a low-key scene, Helena turns heel on us, telling the live-in nanny (Naloana Lima) she’s hiring that, no, of course the family can’t offer benefits. Later, as something foul molders behind or beneath her struggling store, she accuses her employees of theft.

The film’s brittle and quiet, on occasion touched with the techniques of horror, especially as Helena stalks her store after hours. It’s also trenchant, stinging, and acted with great frumping subtlety. None of these characters would appreciate us watching them, except for that nanny — eager to gain the experience to get better jobs — and neither husband nor wife understands what the film lets us know from the start: The economy in which they live no longer has use for the kinds of things they grew up doing.

The mystery is just how that hard truth relates to the revelation Rojas and Dutra have waiting behind the walls of that grocery.

Hard Labor

Directed by Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra

Cinema Slate

Opens October 30, Cinema Village

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