A carefree life on the move is steadily and exquisitely overtaken by melancholy in writer-directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa’s Arábia, the portrait of a meandering journey fueled by song, anecdote, and landscape that zeroes in on the pressures of contemporary Brazil almost in passing. While the film is a gently fragmented road movie first and foremost, Dumans and Uchoa are never afraid to let other influences wander in at will: off-kilter social realism, the musical, the essay film, and even the (invented) autobiography. Because what else makes up the life of an individual but all the moments they’re unable to escape?
It’s typical of the filmmakers’ taste for digression that Arábia’s opening stretches are subsequently revealed to be a canny framing device for the film’s nominal main thread, already establishing the idea that the line between the central and the incidental will be blurred. The teenaged André (Murilo Caliari) lives with his younger brother next to an aging aluminum factory in Ouro Preto, with the grainy deposits it belches out coating window sills and lungs alike. Via his aunt Márcia (Gláucia Vandeveld), he briefly meets Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), a taciturn factory worker who collapses one day on the job. Asked by Márcia to pick up some of now-comatose man’s things from his house and bring them to the hospital, André comes across his diary and later begins to read from it, with the film now leaving the small town behind to hitch a ride on the story that took Cristiano there in the first place.
Cristiano narrates his tale in voiceover, to images showing snippets of his various exploits over the years, with his not always chronological narration continually interrupted as individual episodes from these exploits are allowed to play out. Initially at least, these episodes are hardly the sort of moments one might expect to constitute a life’s turning points: innocuous conversations at work, tales from the road, everyday banter, repeated impromptu sing-alongs, the latter of which often tap most directly into the characters’ feelings, much like in a musical, while entering into constant dialogue with the soundtrack’s road-movie-referencing songs and plucked guitar.
This portrait of a young man’s meandering journey zeroes in on the pressures of contemporary Brazil in passing.
More often than not, the anecdotes in question are being recounted by someone else and have little to do Cristiano’s life anyway: the story of a tangerine farmer and agitator named Bareto told by both he himself and one of his admiring colleagues; the fond letter written by the mother of Cristiano’s friend, Nato, happily oblivious to the truth of their working plight; the unlikely yarn—which gives the film its name—about the Arab who hires four Brazilians; the mournful dream of empty factories that Ana (Renata Cabral) relates to Cristiano as their relationship is merely beginning, even though her significance for him is clear long before she actually appears.
With Cristiano passing though countless provincial cities and crisscrossing the whole of southeastern Brazil in the process, both his wanderings and the experiences of those like him come to comment on the state of the country: the dearth of secure jobs and the eternal struggle to get a professional foothold; everyone’s fear of sliding into crime; the absence of safety nets and the weariness that this engenders. But this message is assembled so gradually and in such casually piecemeal fashion that the film always seems at a considerable remove from standard social realism, a feeling only amplified by how Dumans and Uchoa slyly manipulate their otherwise unvarnished observations of life. Their geometrically minded, often sustained framings continually extract the abstract from the everyday, while the subtle tinkering with the palette of colors used in most shots adds a layer of mild artifice, as if to suggest that everything here could still be being plucked from a story book.
As Cristiano’s journey inevitably leads back to Ouro Preto and converges on where it apparently ends, the focus of the film narrows accordingly, with the final stretches giving such dominance to his voiceover that Arábia morphs into a dejected, even despairing essay on how going with the flow eventually leaves you washed up. Yet though the film’s tone darkens, everything isn’t lost for its weary protagonist, largely because there’s still one thing that nothing and no one can take from him: the ability to narrate and thus control his own story. And if all the stories recounted by others in Arábia are themselves pieces of other, equally self-determined autobiographies, their combined possibility is pure hope, a utopian thought that even Cristiano himself seems aware of: “Everyone had a story, even the quiet ones.”