A migrant worker’s journal opens up a world for a disaffected teenager, and us, in “Araby,” a beautifully turned Brazilian movie that carries on as if a social-cause documentary and a folk song confessional had entered into a poignant embrace.
Directed with unforced simplicity and heart by João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa, who serve up a sobering tour of the spaces where laborers make their way in the world, the film finds grace in the everyday lives of an often-unseen population but never forgets how hardship and injustice typically surround these moments. In that respect, the movie feels part of a through line from Italian neorealism to the issue-driven Belgian storytellers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (“The Promise,” “The Kid With a Bike”).
It’s a tone set early on when Dumans and Uchoa open their movie with an uninterrupted follow-along shot — scored to ‘60s troubadour Jackson C. Frank’s nomad ballad “Blues Run the Game” — of curly haired teen André (Murilo Caliari) as he rides his bicycle along a picturesque cliffside view that segues into the industrial town he calls home. The lilt is broken by the next image, however, of a yellow-lit, smoke-spewing factory at night offset by an ominous fence, which feels like a flash cut to a somber reality.
At home, André looks after his sick little brother, whose cough can’t help but seem connected to the dusty residue on their windowsill, which looks out over the nearby aluminum plant. When a worker named Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa) suffers an accident, André’s aunt (Gláucia Vandeveld) — nurse to the town laborers — orders Andre to get the man’s belongings.
It’s when André happens upon Cristiano’s notebook and begins reading it that “Araby” changes course to give us the fable within the story, of how a man, in searching for a better life over the course of 10 years, came to where he is now. As narrated by the character of Cristiano himself from his journal entries (which we eventually learn were part of a theater class exercise), we discover a road saga of wandering, working and impermanence, where toil isn’t always rewarded, friendships are real until they’re not, and the glimmer of love can create an impression that lasts longer than the routine indignities in any long haul.
As Cristiano moves across Brazil, he roves from tangerine-picking to road construction to factory employment, from nights singing songs, laughing and smoking weed with co-workers, to time spent during off-hours at a textile mill cultivating a romance with an employee named Ana (Renata Cabral). All the while, the filmmakers create an engaging lyrical flow of artfully composed images, scenes and observations that keep pity at bay yet illuminate a loneliness gathered and hardened over a hopelessly itinerant life.
That vibe is also reinforced by the sense that Cristiano’s tale is just one in a sea of stories most of us will never hear, but that are frequently shared (even turned into song) by a perpetual underclass. There’s even room for humor, as when a loading dock exchange turns into a friendly competition for who can name the worst cargo to carry. (Fish pellets? Easy. Cement mix? Ugh.)
All of this is anchored wonderfully by non-actor De Sousa, for whom the filmmakers created the role (after having worked with him on their previous feature “The Hidden Tiger”) and whose own life experiences were built into Cristiano. It’s become a hallmark of the documentary/fiction hybrid that the realism on display feels both lived-in and poetic, and that’s in De Sousa’s face as well, which — like the obliquely titled “Araby” as it shuffles along to its unexpected, reflective conclusion — always registers a powerful synthesis of sensitivity and weariness.
In Portuguese with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 10, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills