"Hard Labor" starts off like a high-minded examination of class relations in contemporary Brazil. But then one of the characters unearths what looks like a wizened pterodactyl claw.
First-time directors Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra said they'd drawn inspiration from the Italian political cinema of the postwar through the 1970s, as well as the horror stories of Stephen King.
The result of that eclectic mix is the tale of a middle-class family edging toward poverty and assailed by the black underbelly of the natural world, which keeps encroaching into their urban lives in the most grotesque of ways. (Besides the oversized claw and other fossilized parts of an unidentified beast, the family finds a chicken embryo in an egg yolk and pulls a maggot-infested mass out of the plumbing.)
It's like "The Shining" meets a Vittorio De Sica film _ astute and revolting, observant and terrorizing in equal parts.
The movie follows Helena, a Sao Paulo housewife whose husband loses his white-collar job just as she's decided to open a corner supermarket. As the money problems worsen, the gruesome things they stumble across or dig up in their apparently haunted market multiply, pushing the couple to the verge of madness.
"The fantastic elements in the movie bring out a whole other side in the characters and we see them doing things that they wouldn't if the film remained in the realm of realism alone," said Dutra and Rojas, who are often in the habit of finishing each other's sentences.
The film zooms in on Elena's transformation from a stay-at-home mom swathed in a cocoon of naive innocence into a hard-nosed entrepreneur _ often suspicious of and sharp with her employees.
"We tried to make her nuanced, with a personality that's sweet but with a nasty side, too," said Dutra.
The movie completely eschews the cinematic stereotypes of the directors' native Brazil: There's nary a bikini nor a favela to be seen _ just the gray office buildings and functional apartments of Sao Paulo, Brazil's sprawling commercial capital and home to both directors.
"We're from the urban middle class, and it was that reality around us that we were interested in portraying when we set about writing the script," said Rojas. "It's such a different vision of Brazil, so different from the images even we inside the country see of ourselves, that it has surprised a lot of people."
"Hard Labor" is competing in the Un Certain Regard selection at Cannes, the elite French Riviera cinema showcase that runs through May 22.