Cannes (Un Certain Regard) – A first-time feature from a directorial duo still blessed with the gift of jeunesse (Marco Dutra is 31, Juliana Rojas just 29), Hard Labor unleashes a wellspring of horror in the unlikely environs of a São Paolo supermarket. Paul Martin checks out a story of darkly comic dread which proves to be anything other than hard work.
As we are always being told, Brazil is one of the powerhouse economies of the 21st century, along with China and India. While we in the UK and our friends in the US see our economies stagnate, the victims of national outputs that are out-of-kilter with wages and living standards, Brazil is currently going through the same process we did in the '50s, as the masses rush to join the aspirational middle classes.
Just one such socially-clambering aspirer is Helena (played by Helena Albergaria), who would pretty much seem to have it all. Her husband, Otávio (played by Marat Descartes, an actor with a name that weds two very different towering figures from French history), has a respectable professional career, and the pair have been blessed with a daughter, Vanessa (Marina Flores). The very first scene of Hard Labor finds Helena looking to put the final seal on her bourgeois joy, as she takes the lease on a dormant supermarket with a view to forging her own thriving retail business.
However, no sooner is this deal agreed than things begin to fall apart for her. She arrives back at the house to find Otávio there, he having just been fired from his job and replaced by a younger colleague. The supermarket premises proves rife with problems too – a dark stain disfigures one wall, a thick viscous sludge spurts from the floor and turns everybody's stomachs, and a snarling dog loiters outside every night.
Though Helena puzzles over the mysterious negative force, almost a black magic curse, which seems to be blighting she and her family, it will seem to many viewers that her woes are recompense for her own behaviour; she is snooty and high-handed with her employees, and cheap and petty with her new maid, the youthful Paula (Naloana Lima), even hiring her for less than the minimum wage.
Hard Labor is a social metaphor constructed using the phraseology of the horror film, with the generation gap being one of the key topics touched upon. Otávio feels so humiliated at being forced to compete for work with candidates young enough to be his own sons that he withdraws into a slovenly depression. Meanwhile, Helena's youngest supermarket employee, Ricardo (Thiago Carreira), turns out to be as much of an uncanny zombie as any of the reanimated cadavers which shuffled round the shopping mall in Romero's Dawn of the Dead.
Co-writers and directors Dutra and Rojas seem ultimately to be suggesting that some kind of apocalyptic destruction of basic decency has already struck humanity, but that we are all so caught up in the modern rat-race as not to have even noticed. Their movie, like a celluloid Charon, the ferryman of the Styx, guides the audience on a slow, measured descent towards that cataclysmic mania, going from early stages that play out like a standard domestic drama, to the distrubing, yet bleakly funny, final crescendo.
And Rojas and Dutra's eye for a memorable disquieting image is as sharp as their facility for satire. From the creepy, vacant Santa masks which hang on the shelves of the store, to the nauseating, worm-riddled blob of hair that is exposed as cause of the sludge spurts, to a Cerberian dog (to invoke Hadean legend once more) which Vanessa and her father spot in a museum display, there is plenty in this impressive, assured, and on occasions delightfully deviant, movie to gnaw at the nerves.
Rating on a scale of 5 dogs howling at the moon: 4
Release date: UK = TBC; US = TBC
Directed by: Juliana Rojas, Marco Dutra
Screenplay by: Juliana Rojas, Marco Dutra
Cast: Helena Albergaria, Marat Descartes, Naloana Lima, Marina Flores
Cert: UK = TBC; US = TBC
Running time: 99 minutes