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Non-Review Review: Hard Labour (Trabalhar Cansa)

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

The problem with Hard Labour is that it doesn’t seem to know what it is? Is it a tough economic drama about a family struggling to survive in a harsh economic climate? Is it a horror story about the legacies of slavery and the beastly side of human nature? The problem isn’t just that the film can’t decide – the problem is that the film appears to have no interest in deciding. Or even on following through on either idea.

It left me cold...

There is a reason that “drama/horror” isn’t a popular subgenre like “horror/comedy” or “horror/thriller” or “horror/mystery.” The two genres seem to exist diametrically opposed to one another. Drama is often about demonstrating that something or someone has more depth than they may originally appear to have, the victory of substance over style. More often than not, horror is just the opposite, it’s about making a shallow situation or scenario more emotionally engage than it should be, style over substance.

Hard Labour discovers this problem first hand, and the pacing is a nightmare. We’re introduced to a small Sao Paulo family, coping with the changing economic times in their own way. The patriarch is made redundant an finds himself unable to adapt to the modern jobs market. Meanwhile, his wife opens a small convenience store and they struggle to make ends meet.

Somebody's going to have to account for this...

They hire a maid under draconian conditions. They won’t register her employment, and she lives under their roof. It seems she is not allowed a social life of her own. For the first month, she is paid less than minimum wage, and even after that is not paid nearly enough for her hours. At the same time, the mother becomes increasingly harsh towards the shop staff, making them work holidays, and accusing them of stealing from her.

This feels distinctly uncomfortable, even a little bit sexist. Her husband is generally portrayed as an emasculated specimen, who is managed by his wife as if he were an employee, and is unable to cope with the modern world. The movie ends with the character discovering his primal scream, as if to imply that he had somehow lost touch with his masculinity by failing to be the household’s breadwinner.

Setting up a new business in this climate? You must be bricking it...

The movie’s conservative gender politics extend to the mother as well. For earning to earn the majority of the household’s income, she’s portrayed as a monster. It takes her husband, who despite being an office worker apparently knows a lot about running the shop, to tell her to ease off the whip. It seems strange that her husband complains she’s spending so little time with her daughter – one wonders how much time he spent with his daughter before he was made redundant, or even how much time he spends with he now. That’s the drama at the heart of the film.

The movie also plays up several classic horror movie devices. We’re introduced to the story with a tour given by a somewhat shady estate agent, and it seems like quite the eerie location. That’s before we get to the strange stains on the wall, the disappearing food, or the strange material leaking from the tiles. The movie hints that some distinctly unpleasant fate befell the last few tenants, and that they are completely unreachable, though it never feels the need to elaborate. Even the signal on the CCTV is picking up some weird interference.

Family misfortunes...

So we get the occasional jump scare or creepy scene, where our lead actress finds herself alone in the store at night. Things fall over, motion-detectors randomly fire, impossible breezes blow – the sort of routine stuff that one expects in a horror movie. Digging around, she finds a sledgehammer and a set of chains in the store. The imagery isn’t subtle, and the movie handily provides us with a brief history of slavery in South America, courtesy of a school play.

Given the themes in the film, with an exploited underclass, one would think they could see where the movie is going… but they don’t. Because the movie isn’t going anywhere. We get one (maybe two) creepy scenes, interspaced with extended family dynamics. Neither story thread plays well off the other – and neither one really develops or expands. In fact, the audience seemed to get a bit excited when our protagonist finally decided to investigate what exactly was behind that mysteriously stained wall. Of course, it was something decidely unnatural.

Never quite hammers anything home...

This ends up being more than a little disappointing when our leading family manages to efficiently deal with the problem through a carefully-considered violation of illegal dumping laws. That seems like a rather half-assed approach to dealing with a haunting, if you ask me. Hell, I’m imagining how Poltergeist might have played out differently if its uneasy spirits gave up so easily. Of course, it isn’t only the horror plot thread that winds up without a satisfying resolution. We never discover whether business picks up, or how the family unit copes.

In fact, the movie ends so abruptly and so pointlessly that one might be forgiven for assuming that the production crew simply ran out of money, leaving directors Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas to shrug their shoulders and declare, “It’ll do.” The problem is that it doesn’t. What we end up with is a collection of stuff that happened, rather than a story. It’s a waste.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 1

2 Responses

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