Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God. You shall not do any work, either you or your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox or donkey or any work animal, or the resident alien within your gates, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do.
Last year, Oscar-winner Parasite and box-office smash Knives Out gave audiences class warfare in a delicious genre coating. Before we could find out if any new horror flicks or mysteries would offer comparable political pleasures, COVID-19 shuttered theaters and left film fans scouring the streaming services. That’s how I found Hard Labor, a 2011 Brazilian horror film from writers/directors Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas, which you can watch for free if your local library system subscribes to Kanopy. Hard Labor is as incisive as Parasite in its portrayal of misery, complicity, and the scramble up the lower rungs of the economic ladder; it’s funny and scary, it hints that Catholicism offers one alternative to economic Darwinism, and the most horrifying thing about it is how little its monster matters.
Hard Labor starts when lower-middle-class couple Helena (Helena Albergaria) and Otávio (Marat Descartes) take a chance on a gutted grocery store, whose previous owner mysteriously disappeared. Already these characters earn our sympathy: The deep lines around Helena’s mouth and Otávio’s receding hairline tell the story of their struggle to keep the lights on and the rent paid. The grocery store is their hope for something truly their own, a chance to move up instead of just sliding down more slowly.
But they are not poor. They have enough cash to buy the grocery store, just barely—but their “just barely” includes hiring a (darker-skinned) live-in maid. Otávio has just lost his job, but if they don’t have the maid, who will take care of their daughter while Helena runs the grocery store? So Helena does some chiseling, some bait-and-switch, some emotional manipulation. . . and she gets her maid, Paula (Naloana Lima), cheap and without benefits. This job interview, which degrades both participants and exposes their desperation, runs parallel with a miserably funny job interview for Otávio, one of several scenes in which the film’s satire captures the dehumanizing nature of contemporary corporate culture.
The more helpless Helena feels, the more her suspicion and desperation take hold in the store. She accuses employees of theft, and tries to get them to turn on one another. She institutes bag checks at closing time. And meanwhile strange things are happening: A horrible smell lingers in the meat department. . . a foul black ooze wells up from the floor. . . a black dog stalks Helena.
The film never suggests that Helena is simply hallucinating. The monster is real and others can see its broken fang, the hideous implements used to restrain it. Hard Labor is structured like genre horror (right down to the “The End. . . Or Is It?” final shot), with steadily-building tension and increasing proof of supernatural evil.
The horror that lurks in the grocery store is, as in most haunted-house films, a way of commenting on the family: Here, the film emphasizes that the family is not solely an emotional unit, but also an economic one. The couple’s home is also Paula’s workplace; everyone in the household, including the couple’s young daughter, eventually works in the store. Whatever evil is in the store isn’t confined to it. As work so often does, it follows them home.
A key feature of most haunted-house movies is that the characters have to go beyond what they would do otherwise. Whether the house’s evil transforms them or simply unleashes what’s worst in them, they’ve got to do things they never would have done if they hadn’t encountered supernatural evil. Jack Torrance in The Shining has to pick up that roque mallet and start smashing heads.
But the most fascinating thing about Hard Labor is that this is not its story. Even as signs of some horrifying supernatural creature appear in the store, the actions of the protagonists never go beyond the bounds of ordinary capitalist morality. They don’t slaughter their employees; they just force them into moral dilemmas. They don’t chant praises to Satan; they just scream at an underling, “Have some respect! Don’t you see how hard I work here?” Under the influence of visible supernatural evil, they don’t even act as poorly as Amazon or Smithfield Foods.
The movie’s aesthetic is an unsettling mix of indie-drama austerity and genre pleasures. We hear no music until the closing credits; there’s bleak lighting and lingering close-ups on a maid’s hands, a bloodstained cloth. But it is also, like so many horror movies that love their audience’s simpler tastes, a holiday film. We get two fantastic set pieces of Christmas horror, one involving an animatronic Santa and the other a family story about a screaming bat. (Hard Labor wants you to know that it knows its place and it’s a pleasure to serve you.) The movie’s climax takes place over a different holiday: Mardi Gras, Brazil’s great carnival. The final moral choice, which exposes the depth to which the store has dragged its owners, is Helena’s decision to open when all the other shops are closed. It’s an explicit rejection of any alternative to the tyranny of economic advancement: Cash Rules Everything Around Me.
Actual Christian faith never appears in the film. Hard Labor has no gospel to preach. Nor does it condemn its suffering protagonists, even as they cause those worse-off than themselves to suffer further. Its images of capitalism include Paula receiving her Social Security card, at her second job, and being told, “Now you exist”; and Helena’s mother criticizing Paula’s cleaning, then musing, “Housework is relaxing.” But capitalism, in this film, is also Helena alone in a Santa hat, miserably Febreezing the meat department. Hard Labor is a feel-bad film, in which whatever thing living in the store will break its promises—the Devil, like Helena, doesn’t offer benefits.
Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.