Sunday, December 02, 2007

Film Review: Under Their Finger

Elio Petri's The Working Class Goes to Heaven (La Classe Operaia Va In Paradiso) is a grim look at the psychological wounds imposed by the factory regime on its chief character, Ludovico Massa. Cruelly nicknamed Lulù the Tool by his pissed off and contrary co-workers, in a factory where he operates a lathe, his obsessive output making him the measure management use to gauge everyone else's work rate.

The movie was part of Italy's il cinema politico wave, a cinematic movement where directors screened the tensions in a country polarised, much like Dario Fo brought the crisis of the day to the stage of popular theatre. As the hang over of 1968's Red Autumn turned into one long winter of discontent through to the late seventies, younger workers brought the anti-authoritarianism of the universities into the factories, and the artistic community brought these influences into their own fields.

Petri began his career as a movie critic for the Communist daily L'Unità, no shock then there's a didactic touch to it all. With a gigantic finger pinned to the walls around the factory, pressing down at head level upon the characters; just in case you didn't already realise - these are individuals rightly under the finger of the boss.

That classic Ennio Moricone sound-tracking smothers everything deliciously in an overt desperation. It's a surreal atonal gasp running throughout - partially the factory rhythm in music (much like the 8 bar blues sequence at the start of Paul Scrader's Blue Collar) but more so the internal shriek of the factory worker in the face of monotony.

Lulu arises everyday at 6:30am, shaking his partner in frustration that she gets to sleep in later than him; its that everyday invasion of work to the domicile. Reading the morning paper's business section he identifies wholly with his companies moves on the exchange: "we're buying Beckenbower." Over coffee he explains himself as an appendage to a production unit - a machine that feeds itself raw materials - producing on the lathe and then shit at night.

The choreography of Lulu at work tends towards a sexual pounding of the machine. He finds his pace for the breathtakingly idiotic race for the piece rate between exclaims of "a bolt, a bum" and terrifies a female co-worker with this aggressive sexual behaviour. As he trains two younger students starting in the factory, the tensions between his work ethic and the younger generation, who some of the older workers are starting to listen to every morning at the gate, starts to become clear - but when he loses a finger to his machine everything changes for him.

Another of Elio Petri's movies, one I've yet to see, was Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, it copped the Best Foreign Film Oscar back in the day and has been described as an examination of the pathology of power via a bent police commissioner. This movie too uses some pretty familiar tropes to look at the psychology of work and the authoritarianism of the factory regime.

As a director Petri is hostile to all the forces in the movie, all are somewhat retarded by the systems they dwell in; from the extreme left students who bay at the factory workers through megaphones each morning "today for you there will be no light," unable to see the humanity between the slogans of their programmes to the supervisors ill assured tyrannies on the floor.

No surprise then that Lulu, once fired for his eventual political turn around, finds himself disillusioned with it all; left to quantify the past few years of his life through acts of violence against commodities in his home. Ever greater outrages take him as calculates the amount of work hours it cost him to purchase something - "a clock? 30 Hours!"

Visiting his estranged son one morning in a school, Lulu comments through the playground wire "you look like little workers." Fences stand between all in the film, both as metaphors and material, and sizable portions of screen time are spent talking through gaps in them or running around them.

The poetic voice of the movie is Militina, an old communist in an asylum, long since abandoned caring about his incarceration, he sees the whole world an institution of one framework or another. His crime against reason? Nearly strangling a supervisor, finally awoken to an explosion of contradictions, he realised that he didn't even know what he'd churned out in the factory all these years: "A man has the right to know what he is doing!"

Anyone that has some sympathy for political directors that combine some dramatic subtleties with sprinkled hammer blows of politics will get off big time here, but I actually don't quite know how to make my mind up about it - overbearing and pissing on any hope would be a fair sentiment too.

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