Horror elements are wrapped around the unsurprising notion that management fosters an unequal power distribution with workers in the icy neo-thriller "Hard Labor."

Horror elements are wrapped around the unsurprising notion that management fosters an unequal power distribution with workers in the icy neo-thriller “Hard Labor.” Though award-winning shorts helmers Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra know how to create atmosphere, it’s uncertain whether they realize how heavy-handed their symbolism is, with its implicit — even explicit — message that capitalism is a malignant mildew on the social contract, creating a festering hole in a new business proprietor’s personal relations. Unable to induce true chills with its economic philosophy, the pic will have difficulty finding its niche audience.

Life seems to be looking up when Helena (Helena Albergaria) finds a grocery store to rent, but then hubby Otavio (the philosophically monikered Marat Descartes) gets laid off and they’re not sure if they can afford the place. Determined to make it work, Helena supervises the necessary repairs, hiring Paula (Naloana Lima), a young woman new to the workforce, as a live-in maid and caretaker to her daughter Vanessa (Marina Flores).

Something’s creepy about the new store: Viscous muck seeps up through the floor, mold stains appear on a wall and a nasty dog keeps barking outside at night. Meanwhile, Otavio’s having difficulty finding a job (the one interview scene is played for absurdism and falls completely flat), feeling emasculated now that Helena’s the sole breadwinner. Their normal bourgeois life begins to crumble, with Otavio clearly suffering from depression and Helena becoming increasingly tense and suspicious. As her business consumes her life, the shop itself turns ever more unsettling.

Rojas and Dutra demonstrate a frosty sensibility from the get-go: Helena is bathed in cold fluorescent light as she inspects the empty-shelved store, and the frigid feel is furthered by a flat artificiality the helmers cultivate via airless dialogue exchanges. It may add to the creepiness, but rather than conveying claustrophobia, it just makes the viewer want to open the windows and let in some air and warmth.

The real untenability, though, lies in the way “Hard Labor” teeters uncertainly between horror and social commentary. It feels as if the helmers tried to imagine what Bunuel would have done if he had made a horror film, yet Helena’s increasing hardness and paranoia regarding her workers (as well as a rather silly finale involving Otavio) is too obviously designed to show the corrupting force of the eternal boss-hireling power struggle. The most interesting relationship, between Paula and her employers, is the most underdeveloped, perhaps because it’s the one least imbued with genre elements.

Cold, pale visuals play up the overall atmosphere, in which troubled closeups feed the neurotic underpinnings and every footfall is heard. Music is kept to a minimum, which wisely prevents artificial manipulation.

Hard Labor

Brazil

Production

A Dezenove Som e Imagens production. (International sales: Urban Distribution Intl., Montreuil.) Produced by Maria Ionescu, Sara Silveira. Executive producer, Maria Ionescu. Directed, written by Juliana Rojas, Marco Dutra.

Crew

Camera (color), Matheus Rocha; editor, Caetano Gotardo; music, Rafael Cavalcanti; production designer, Fernando Zuccolotto; costume designer, Graciela Martins; sound (Dolby Digital), Gabriela Cunha; sound editors, Daniel Turini, Fernando Henna; line producer, Ronald Kashima; associate producer, Filmes do Caixote; casting, Alice Wolfenson. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 12, 2011. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Helena Albergaria, Marat Descartes, Naloana Lima, Marina Flores, Lilian Blanc, Gilda Nomacce, Thiago Carreira, Heitor Goldflus, Clarissa Kiste.

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