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The Working Class Goes to Heaven

by Glenn Erickson Jan 07, 2023

A big welcome to the new disc company Radiance!  This first CineSavant Radiance review is a knockout political drama from Italy’s Elio Petri, with one of the best performances ever by Gian-Maria Volontè. Model factory machinist Lulù Massa offends his peers on the assembly line with his individualistic egotism. An injury on the job makes him a focus for Unionists and student radicals. Petri’s warmly humanist picture is also blunt in its outlook — our imperfect hero is adrift in an unsatisfactory system, and the politicals’ agenda isn’t helpful either. It’s compelling filmmaking, co-starring Mariangela Melato and driven by an excellent Ennio Morricone music score.


The Working Class Goes to Heaven
Region B Blu-ray
Radiance (U.K.)
1971 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 115 min. / Street Date February 1, 2023 / La classe operaia va in paradiso, Lulù the Tool / Available from / £16.99
Starring: Gian Maria Volontè, Mariangela Melato, Salvo Randone, Mietta Albertini, Gino Pernice, Luigi Diberti, Donato Castellaneta, Giuseppe Fortis, Corrado Solari, Flavio Bucci, Luigi Uzzo, Nino Bignamini, Ennio Morricone.
Cinematography: Luigi Kuveiller
Production Designer: Dante Ferreti
Film Editor: Ruggero Mastroianni
Original Music: Ennio Morricone
Written by Ugo Pirro and Elio Petri
Produced by Ugo Tucci
Directed by
Elio Petri

In terms of basic entertainment many ‘political’ features are a pain in the tail. When they veer towards poetic surrealism, the filmmaker better be as brillliant as Luis Buñuel, or things can get pretentious very quickly. We’ve admired most everything we’ve seen from Italy’s Elio Petri, the director of the highly expressive Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion and of the smart, satirical sci-fi/pop art thriller The Tenth Victim. Petri’s Property Is No Longer a Theft is an effective black comedy and political satire.

We welcome the new U.K. disc label Radiance, from longtime disc producer Francesco Simeoni. Kat Ellinger is a co-producer on this disc and its extras. Their release The Working Class Goes to Heaven aka La classe operaia va in paradiso is one of the best Elio Petri pictures we’ve yet seen. Neck-deep in the class politics of its day, it stars Gian-Maria Volontè, a talent committed to the Italian communist cause. Unlike some political pictures about labor struggles it’s not a comedy in disguise, content to throw out a lot of disconnected ‘satirical’ incident. Petri’s agenda is surprisingly honest, open and self-critical. It’s a much more humanistic picture than Petri & Volontè’s previous Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, which dealt in cold ironies.

 

Petri and co-writer Ugo Pirro (La soldatesse) center their story on an everyman worker in the industrialized North. Gian-Maria Volontè is Ludovico Massa, often called ‘Lulù,’ a machinist caught up in a tall stack of problems, on the B.A.N. factory floor and also at home. A dedicated worker, Massa has twisted his personality to meld with his lathe-mill, putting himself into a machine-like trance to turn out finished product faster than anybody around him. Lulù jokes about being in a zone of concentration, saying that he thinks about sex to keep up a certain work rhythm.

But the working politics are out of balance. The company treats the workers like machines, and plagues them with always-critical efficiency experts. Lulù is resented by his co-workers because the bosses use his high productivity as the norm, demanding more output from everyone and docking their pay if they don’t perform. A ‘piecework’ policy encourages the machinists to work longer hours, risking fatigue injuries. It’s called an incentive program, but it mostly favors management.

 

Lulù Massa channels his frustrations into working harder; he identifies strongly with the Work Ethic. His colleagues want him to slow down. They warn him that his haste and questionable practices — unsafe motions with his hands — may backfire. He could end up in a poorhouse, maimed and with no friends. Management lets Lulù smoke on the factory floor, against the rules. They take him around to other work stations, where he shows how he does any man’s job faster. When told to train two newbies, more green kids from the ‘savage’ South of Italy, he tells them that a monkey can learn everything about their job in just a day.

Lulù is no saint. He’s capable of sensitive thought but is still a sexist male with little restraint verbal or physical. He harasses a female coworker (Mietta Albertini), which offends some of the other workers. He has earned enough to buy himself a car, but his home life is a mess. He sees his estranged wife and child only infrequently; he lives with his girlfriend Lidia (Mariangela Melato) and her son.

When Lidia complains that they have no sex life, Lulù realizes that he’s giving everything to the production line. In ‘political theater’ terms Massa begins in an ignorant state. He makes the crude observation that he has no identity except as a factory worker, and that he himself is an absurd factory, consuming food and outputting excrement as a product. Lidia is sick of this kind of vulgar negativity.

 

The class conflict is ever-present. The workers are of course furious when management raises production goals without more pay. Each day begins with an ongoing conflict at the gates. Union reps and student revolutionaries hectoring them with bullhorn speeches about capitalist oppression. Lulù Massa sticks to his exalted position as the Hercules of the factory floor. He’s bothered by his visits to his old friend Militina (Salvo Randone of The Assassin), who cracked up on the job and is now consigned to the ‘nuthouse.’     Lulù intuits that Militina’s fate may be his own, if he can’t get his work life in order.

The Working Class Goes to Heaven hits its pace when Lulù can’t avoid becoming engaged in the political struggle around him. High emotions on the work floor put him off his pace, causing an accident in which he loses a finger. The ‘human machine’ comparison fits — clutching his bleeding hand, Lulù initially denies that he’s been hurt, and must be pulled from his workstation. He then becomes heavily involved in the protests. He’s unable to commit to any faction — the union wants to simply negotiate a better ‘piecework’ rate, while the student radicals want to shut down everything. Lulù is fired after a work stoppage turns violent, at which everything falls apart for him. His union colleagues swear they’ll get him re-hired, but he no longer believes anything he hears.

 

Petri and Volontè take us deep into Lulù Massa’s inner conflicts. He’s an unrefined, sexist who openly shouts his personal prejudices. He loves his boy and Lidia’s boy, but also hits them when he’s upset

Lulù’s sex life is strongly tied to his sense of work satisfaction, a near-universal situation I’ve not seen before in a movie. His sexual aggression is not an excuse for sex scenes or trash talk dialogue, although these workers can be vulgar in their speech. Lulù seems happy only when he and a young woman have sex in his car, inside the frozen ruin of the shuttered paint factory where he once worked (and where the chemicals made him sick). The sex in the tiny Fiat is appalling, especially for the poor woman, who gets nothing out of it but pain. 

 

The combination of Gian-Maria Volontè’s superb acting and Elio Petri’s excellent direction makes The Working Class Goes to Heaven an exceptional dramatic experience. Most shows of this kind end up as simple tragedies. Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer and Martin Ritt’s The Molly Maguires emphasize the historical futility of labor strife. John Sayles’emotional workout Matewan is almost as bleak.

The lessons in social regimentation and submission begin early for the working class: seeing Lidia’s boy coming out of school in a line of tots, Lulù Massa says that they look like factory workers. At his low point of disillusion Lulù takes an inventory of Lidia’s coveted possessions. He works for work itself, not consumer baubles. When his bosses fire him, he’s forced to question everything. An honest exchange with the communist agitator in the occupied university give Lulù another lesson in political reality. The activist doesn’t care about individuals, only his broader Marxist agenda. It’s not his problem if Lulù hasn’t a job, or if his family starves.

Gian-Maria Volontè growls, yells, complains and makes rude speeches throughout, yet we’re on his side all the way. The often-crude Lulù is the exact opposite of Volontè’s imperious police commissioner in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. I like Lulù almost as much as the actor’s later tour-de-force as the thoughtful political exile of Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli.

Elio Petri’s direction doesn’t permit The Working Class Goes to Heaven to go slack for a moment. His docu-drama approach combines handsome formal angles (the factory lies in the middle of a snowbound grove of trees) and breathless-but-precise handheld scenes with brisk cutting. When Lulù Massa is at his machine we share his hypnotic rhythm. He moves so quickly that we fear he’ll lose a hand, not a finger. The struggles at the gate between workers, union officials, agitators, management and cops are not overstated — everybody wants a better break, not to break heads. The union blowhards pleading for reasoned opposition eventually make good on their promises . . . by which time Lulù is so addled, we hope he’ll not have a permanent breakdown like his older pal.

 

The film is a little long but every scene contributes to its thesis. We wonder if the activist Volontè insisted on keeping some material that otherwise might have been dropped. The extras tell us that Volontè and Petri’s working relationship was often a creative clash of opinions, but that they always respected each other.

Pazzia de lavoro = Work Madness

Adding immeasurably to the experience is Ennio Morricone’s near-experimental music score, that launches into its main theme by establishing a beat with machine noises. The most representative clip from Working Class is the sequence of Lulù Massa in action, a dervish at the lathe / mill / whatever it is, with Morricone’s driving music expressing his ‘work rhythm.’  The sequence would play well next to the assembly line mania of Chaplin’s Modern Times and the Torture Clock of Lang’s Metropolis. . . with a bit of Raymond Scott music thrown in for good measure.

Just before the End Title cue we see Lulù as part of an assembly line, laughing and shouting encouragement to his colleagues, even though the machine noise is so loud nobody can hear. It’s perfect for the bosses, we think, as the men can’t plot mutiny. All along, Lulù has been saying that he doesn’t even know what the parts he makes are used for. On this assembly line they’re definitely bolting together something . . . but we never see a completed product. We’re told that the worker who rolls up a cart to receive completed assemblies is none other than Ennio Morricone himself.

 


 

Radiance’s Region B Blu-ray of The Working Class Goes to Heaven is a fine HD encoding, reportedly scanned at 2K. Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiller captures the shop atmosphere well, from the first entry onto the floor through a dust curtain. The apartments we see are dark and dingy; at night Lidia’s TV never goes dark. The snowy landscape outside the factory is quite beautiful, if bleak. The communist demonstrator shouts that the factory workers never see the day — they go into the shop before dawn and come out after dark. Lulù’s one illicit sex escapade must happen in a forbidding disused factory. When Lulù is laid off, someone shouts that when management stops working, they spend their time on a beach somewhere warm. We stay in cold, oppressive spaces.

The first Morricone cue is not familiar, but the track I’ve heard excerpted on compilations does come along soon enough. That driving beat accompanies several dynamic ‘work’ scenes, to great effect.

Radiance appoints its disc with a battery of key source videos and text pieces. The quality is every bit as good as what’s curated for Criterion. We get a rare interview with Gian-Maria Volontè, on French TV with the actor responding in Italian. Scholar Matthew Kowalski, actor Corrado Solari and director Alex Cox appear in new videos talking about Petri and his movie. Cox calls Volontè the world’s best actor; Kowalski gives us an intense overview of leftist politics in Italy from WW2 forward. A 2006 documentary reports from the site of the still-standing factory seen in the movie.

The fat text pamphlet contains essays that distill a lot of good film scholarship. Reading Eugenio Renzi, Pascal Cané and Roberto Curti, I felt like I was happily studying again. The analysis helps round out one’s understanding, when one writer explains that Working Class predated and inspired the social satires of Lina Wertmüller.

Anything that puts film movements and themes into a coherent progression is a big help. For years the only Elio Petri I’d seen was his excellent The Tenth Victim. This tale of working class struggle raises my general appreciation of ‘committed’ Italo filmmaking.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson




The Working Class Goes to Heaven
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Archival interview with Elio Petri from the Cannes Film Festival
Career-encompassing archival interview with Gian Maria Volontè from French TV
Archival interview with actor Corrado Solari
Appreciation of Gian Maria Volontè and the film by filmmaker Alex Cox
Petri’s Praxis: Ideology and Cinema in Post-war Italy – A visual essay by scholar Matthew Kowalski on Petri’s relationship with left-wing politics and its impact on his cinema
Background to a Film Shot in Novara (2006), by Serena Checcucci and Enrico Omodeo Salé; an unconventional making-of documentary, exploring the real-life factory location where the film was shot and the story behind the film’s production there, as told by the staff, film extras and crew
Trailer
54-page color insert pamphlet with
New essay La classe operaia va in paradiso by Eugenio Renzi
New essay Of Broken Toes and Malfunctioning Gears by Roberto Curti
Essay Unifying Function of the Classical Scene by Pascal Cané (Cahiers du cinema 1972)
Interview with Eli Petri (Cinema 1972)
1972 review-essay by James Roy McBean.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
January 4, 2023
(6877work)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.