For their first feature, the directing team of Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra certainly made a reach for the brass ring. A horror film (of sorts) structured around an observation of the economic realities and class systems of Brazil, “Hard Labor” is an ambitious blend of genres that unfortunately is so concerned with teasing and eventually unveiling it’s big last act twist, that the rest of the film is a tiring waiting game.
When the film opens we get a dose of good news/bad news. For the former, Helena (Helena Albergaria) has found the perfect space to open up a grocery store and decides to make the financial leap to do so. But it appears the timing couldn’t be worse as her husband Otavio (Marat Descartes) has just lost his job at an insurance company after ten years. Regardless, Helena plows ahead, hiring maid/nanny Paula (Naloana Lima) to look after the house and their child Vanessa (Marina Flores) and gets started sorting out her store.
But it’s not all as simple as that. Otavio is devastated and emasculated being unemployed. As his mother-in-law notes to Helena, getting a new job at his age (early 40s?) is not easy and Otavio mopes around the house, sleeping late, staying in the same clothes, not showering. He’s in a bit of a funk. Meanwhile, Helena is having problems of her own at the store. Eerie things start happening. At first she thinks nothing of the sewage leak but one evening, when she’s there alone, there is definitely a presence of some kind haunting or inhabiting the place. At night, a dog stands outside the store snarling and growling. And that’s not it.
Eventually, Helena brings Otavio in on what’s going on and they make a couple of discoveries — which we won’t spoil — but seem to point at the space being previously inhabited by something real but completely otherworldy. But it’s at this point the film begins to stumble a bit. The discoveries they make are in the storage area of the grocery store and considering when we first see the space it’s nearly entirely empty, it’s hard to believe at no point no one said “Hey, what’s that?” or “What’s on the end of this random chain that’s attached to the wall?” But Rojas and Dutra are so committed to their story they forgive leaps in logic.
They also forgive the film’s leaden pacing. Prior to “Hard Labor,” the directing duo made a splash with their short films and in many ways, their feature feels like an idea for a smaller film stretched and stretched out to full length version. Given to longer than usual takes and strangely mannered performances by the cast, as a horror film it never feels quite real enough to be scary and as a comment on the reality of the job market in Brazil it’s too stiff to connect. The directors don’t hesitate to underline the hierarchy between employer/employee and middle class/lower class that still very much exists but after pointing it out, they don’t do much with it. The quiet revolution enacted by Paula who is increasingly treated with little respect isn’t disappointingly muted, while Otavio’s true feelings about finding a part time, commission sales job remain mysterious. It’s as if that’s all in the way of the directors finally getting to just what is going on at that grocery store and when it’s finally all connected, the finale is a relief that is both fantastic and mostly ridiculous.
“Hard Labor” is essentially two different kinds of movies — each with strong elements — that have been combined into a weakened whole. Rojas and Dutra should certainly be commended for at least taking a swing and if anything, it establishes them as directors to watch because given a better script we could see them directing the shit out of it. They have a very keen sense of what makes fantasy and horror work and stage many of the sequences quite wonderfully. But outside of their comfort zone the results are less convincing and half of the time “Hard Labor” isn’t worth the work. [C]