Brazil goes through hell, but Araby is a light-touch gem

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      Starring Aristides de Sousa. In Portuguese, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable

      Appearances are deceiving in this gently humanistic fable, the debut codirecting effort of frequent collaborators Affonso Uchoa and João Dumans, who largely work with nonprofessionals.

      They begin with teenage Andre (Murilo Caliari), seen riding his bike to the unexpected strains of Townes Van Zandt's "I'll Be Here in the Morning". He needs to be there for his sickly little brother, running out of medicine since their parents pretty much abandoned them on the industrial outskirts of Ouro Preto, an old mining town in Brazil's Minas Gerais state.

      Fortunately, their good-natured aunt (Gláucia Vandeveld), a community nurse, checks in and takes Andre on her rounds. That's how he meets Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), a taciturn worker at a nearby cement factory. He and we think little of that until the guy has an accident that puts him in a coma. When Andre fetches some of the man's things, he finds a notebook stuffed with stories, and the perspective suddenly switches to Cristiano and his previous decade of wanderings, narrated in the first-person.

      In flashbacks, his 20s unfold with a bout in prison and a spate of joe jobs, including fruit-picking, road-building, and short-haul driving. Although Cristiano rarely speaks, we learn a lot about the inner yearnings and contagious humour of the people around him. He does chat at length with an old-timer about "what's worst to carry". (The answer, fatefully, is "cement".) And he eventually meets the more middle-class Ana (Renata Cabral), whose affections remain prime motivation for the rest of the journey.

      This picaresque adventure is also illuminated by many songs, mostly performed on-screen, and many jokes about human nature-one of which provides the otherwise cryptic title.

      The tale never really returns to Andre, but the unresolved ending leaves things open for the bewildered children of Brazil as the nation faces its darkest challenges since the dictatorship. The hard politics of capitalism are omnipresent, and yet that doesn't ruin the pleasure of this light-touch gem.