As this year's Locarno film festival gets underway, a choice selection from a previous edition sneaks onto UK screens. The Fever, co-written and directed by the Brazilian artist Maya Da-Rin, is one of those items that traditionally goes down well at Locarno: blending elements of fiction and documentary, it casts a mix of professionals and non-pros, and is inexorably drawn to pre-existing locations and workspaces, the better to bring out a sense of the wider-world issues in play. Yet it starts, simply enough, as a character study, happening across Justino (Regis Myrupu), a man of indigenous descent stationed as a security guard at a Manaus container yard, as he nods off during the night shift. Early scenes sketch in the details of his world: his fellow, half-asleep commuters, an openly racist colleague he encounters in the locker room, the small shack he shares with what seems like half his extended family. Quietly, Da-Rin introduces notes of insecurity, small, unnerving jolts intended to challenge any viewer complacency: cutaways to an emergency ward (where, it turns out, Justino's med-student daughter has been deployed), a rustle in the bushes on Justino's walk home, a half-heard TV news report about a wild animal on the loose. Our protagonist strikes a dignified figure - Da-Rin composes painterly portraits of him in his hi-vis tabard - but he's also vulnerable. On that walk home in the small hours, he appears way too close to the trucks careening along the road; around the halfway point, he succumbs to the watery-eyed lethargy suggested by the title. If you're anything like me, you may spend the entire movie wondering whether this avatar of cheap, disposable labour is destined to be ground down, or whether he'll have his head bitten clean off first.
There's a reason his predicament grips us as it does: the film has almost exactly the right amount of facts in its fiction, and fiction in its facts. Da-Rin recognises the uncanny fascination of the container yard itself, with its mobile-Mondrian scenery - a sign of how global capitalism has altered the landscape. Yet she's also acutely alert to the microeconomics of this environment, namely the travails of this little guy in his hard hat, an item of uniform that may well have come out of his paypacket, and which seems unlikely to afford him all that much protection when the world finally comes crashing down on his shoulders. When, not if; the film makes it seem an inevitability. A meeting with an HR rep serves chiefly to rub in how little there is waiting for Justino in his pension pot. The daughter who cooks and cares for him is preparing to leave for better things. Given how far we are down the foodchain, it's scarcely a surprise - but still chilling - when we hear screams and yelps off-camera: the wildcat, killer bug or whatever it is out there is but one predator among many in this neck of the woods. The final movement is very Locarno (and arguably a bit too Locarno): determinedly ambiguous and open-ended, designed to be read any number of ways, with or without the clues salted into the song that plays out over the closing credits. What precedes it, however, holds all the tension of a straight-up monster movie, particularly when our hero wanders off the beaten track after dark. It's a tension that, in this instance, derives precisely from the film's considered realism - its awareness that the safety barriers we set up between untamed wilderness and so-called civilisation have come to be eroded over the years for the sake of a few lousy bucks here and there.
The Fever is now screening in selected London cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.