Like the recently released Iron Crows, Eugenio Polgovsky’s The Inheritors profiles the plight of poorly paid manual laborers, anonymously occupying a life of backbreaking work. Yet the differences between them, specifically the absence of leading narration, broad context, and emotionally manipulative music in Polgovsky’s film, shows that a little restraint goes a long way. Assembled from short, naturalistic shots of people at work, The Inheritors becomes a bittersweet testament to labor and a damning representation of a vicious cycle, its images speaking entirely for themselves.
The kind of restraint is essential, especially since the veritable focus of The Inheritors is child workers, nine- and 10-year-olds who spend their days making bricks, thatching baskets, or picking beans and peppers. They’re the inheritors of the title, though they’re certain to receive paltry compensation for their work, locked into the same system that has trapped their parents, similarly uneducated laborers forced to meet daily quotas to feed their families.
One reason why The Inheritors works is that it abandons the reckless point-and-shoot aesthetic of so many social-issue movies. In a great opening sequence, which runs 10 minutes without any dialogue, the camera captures workers in their chores, establishing a motif of imprisonment through match cuts of bound animals, strapped bundles, and loaded wagons. Polgovsky shoots these tasks in short shots, from different angles, a style that speaks to the time spent with these people and cements a feeling of endless repetition.
The film is a mostly dialogue-free spin on Wiseman-style voyeurism, a flurry of hands and faces conveying a sense of lives lived in constant motion. Polgovsky installed himself within several different groups of workers around the country, and the footage he recorded allows him to skip from one setting to another, creating a patchwork that segues from laughing children guiding donkeys along a mountain path to others hauling buckets of jalapenos through lush fields. They also eke out some time for play, and the film’s earnest admiration of work continues in these portrayals, the camera homing in on the hands of one boy as he carves dazzling figurines from wood.
There are cracks in Polgovsky’s naturalistic approach, primarily the strains of music that chime in at certain moments, breaking the serene rhythm of the visuals and threatening to turn the film into a pain-and-poverty music video. These intrusions are jarring, but it’s easy to see why they seemed necessary, as the steam of pure physical action becomes repetitive after a while, mostly because the film’s points about cyclical imprisonment are established early on and never developed much further. The result is a solid depiction of a largely ignored group of people, plagued with minor structural problems that don’t undercut the power of its message.