Review: The true horror in ‘Hard Labor’ are the nightmarish scenes of everyday life

Helena Albergaria as Helena and Marat Descartes as Otavio in the movie "Hard Labor."

Helena Albergaria as Helena and Marat Descartes as Otavio in the movie “Hard Labor.”

(Cinema Slate / Cinema Slate)

Subtract just a few creepy images from the metaphor-heavy Brazilian horror movie “Hard Labor” and the film could be a straight drama. Co-writers and co-directors Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas take an unusual approach to a story about their country’s changing social structures, producing something that may baffle genre fans but could appeal to the art house crowd.

Helena Albergaria stars as Helena, an upper-middle-class São Paolo wife and mother who decides to reenter the workforce by buying a crumbling grocery store. When the business goes bust, Helena’s home life suffers — especially when her husband, Otávio (Marat Descartes), loses his job.

The horror elements are subtle. Helena’s store is plagued by a spreading dark stain and a foul stench that no floral spray can cover. Security cameras keep picking up unidentifiable shadows moving through the building at night.

Altogether, these supernatural disturbances amount to about a 10th of “Hard Labor.” The movie’s really more interested in Otávio’s feelings of emasculation, Helena’s worries that she’s in over her head and the everyday anxiety of their underpaid, undocumented nanny, Paula (Naolana Lima).

“Hard Labor” isn’t very satisfying as a thriller, and Dutra and Rojas strain at times to equate the woes of the privileged with insidious darkness. But at its best, the film has the quality of a nightmare, one that keeps happening whether the characters are asleep or awake.



“Hard Labor.”

In Portuguese with English subtitles.

Not rated.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills.