It’s hard out there for the white middle-class Brazilian family. Especially when labor relations go off-script and one actually has to struggle—to pay for one’s cable bill, garish Christmas decorations, and domestic help. That’s not what Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra’s Hard Labor sets out to say, but does so anyway. The film succeeds at structuring a narrative in which all players democratically share a case of acute employment dissatisfaction, but its point of view is decidedly that of the masters, not the slaves. Which is an unfortunate departure from another recent Brazilian film that takes up labor relations, The Second Mother, Anna Muylaert’s beautiful rumination on Brazil’s caste-like domestic economy from the perspective of the subaltern.
In Hard Labor, São Paulo is a sort of virulent hellhole that renders all human relations barren, at work and in the home. One surmises this from following the plight of middle-class business-owner Helena (Helena Albergaria), who’s having difficulty hiring an unregistered maid who’s good enough, setting up her new business (a grocery store), and maintaining a sterile marriage with her depressed and freshly unemployed husband, Otávio (Marat Descartes). To make matters worse, an unexplainable hole appears in a wall at Helena’s grocery store, which soon starts to crumble. What is it that the wall cannot hold? What is the strange smell coming from its fissures? And why do remnants of what looks like canine body parts turn up on the ground?
In part because Brazilians are stereotyped as loud and explosive, it’s refreshing to watch the film’s drama simmer rather than snap toward its resolution. Helena is unhappy with all of her relationships, stuck within them as if the possibility for an upgrade—a better lover, nanny, and cashier—were unattainable. This paralysis becomes her life. And for audiences, it’s the awaiting of a second shoe that may never drop. Eventually it does, when Helena takes a mallet to the wall as if to pre-emptively find out what’s been rotting in the dark. The allegorical possibilities of the disintegrating wall, followed by a scene where Helena has an unexplainable nosebleed, point to a film that could have been: an uncanny film centered around the abilities of bodies and walls to articulate what dialogue can’t. A film committed to strangeness and not to a stereotypical, and stiffly acted, depiction of maids as dance hall-loving, class-less broads who aren’t to be trusted.