Lulu (Gian Maria Volonté) is woken by machines every morning. He marches through the factory gates with lines other workers (and work shall set you free?) to operate machines that make pieces for other machines whose function Lulu is never told. The workers adorn the insides of their machinery with posters of naked women, not for any visual titillation but to make the innards of these contraptions they will be “fucking” all day more like enterable flesh.
Lulu prides himself at being the fastest piece worker in the factory (he might not be able to make love at home but he sure can get it up at work) and is always happy to let the other workers know how hard and long he can go at it. That is until, one day, Lulu’s machine “emasculates” him leaving poor Lulu expelled from a system he neither understands nor can re-enter.
Lulu now has his girlfriend and her son, his ex-co-workers, former employers plus both the competing trade unions and Marxist radicals demonstrating outside the factory to contend with.
Will Lulu escape this mechanised nightmare? Will he possibly find a way to reintegrate himself back into the factory in order to establish change from within? Or will “work” fully absorb him back into its clutches? Watch ‘The Working Class Goes to Heaven’ and find out!
What’s fascinating about Petri’s film is almost exactly the same as what makes his previous movie with Volonté, ‘An Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion’ (1970), so arresting — watching an unlikeable man “functioning” within a Kafka-esque system. Yet whereas ‘Investigation’s police detective was a product of the system itself, almost born from it, Lulu, no matter how repugnant to our tastes he may be, is still very much a human being, albeit one forced by circumstances to engage in an inhuman process. It’s because of this we feel for the guy, are on his side, even if we sometimes dislike him.
Unsurprisingly Volonté’s typical fire-cracker performance makes Lulu a character impossible to take your eyes off for a second: the intensity, the focus, the almost unregulated life force exploding from within is utterly mesmerising and even though he represents many of the unsavoury and disgusting aspects of the Italian (or any nationality for that matter) male Petri and Volonté, as usual, exaggerated it to such extremes so as to absolutely destroy and ridicule any and all shreds of posturing “masculinity” (after all, Lulu’s a very childish name for a fully grown man, right?). Not only that but unlike many other films focused on the working class Petri’s work never smacks of a patronising or condescending attitude.
So there’s sympathy at play here. For example — the scene when a dejected Lulu returns to his empty apartment and forlornly looks over all the consumerist tat he’s spent his life and money accumulating is both heartbreaking and hilarious (it also provides what is easily the funniest joke about Alessandro Manzoni’s ‘The Betrothed’ I’ve ever encountered but it is also, in all fairness, the only joke about Manzoni’s ‘The Betrothed’ I’ve ever encountered). Yet it’s as relatable as Edward Norton’s description of his materialist paraphernalia in ‘Fight Club’ (1999), a film ‘Working Class’ pre-figures by two decades.
Technically the film is a deliriously dynamic delight. Morricone’s abrasive and repetitive music creates an unnerving and disorientating effect by acousmatising (dislodging sound from its visual counterpart) the factory noises and absorbing them into the score. The sonic result is both jarring, exhilarating and as intensely energetic as watching Volonté himself. Visually Petri provides everything from Bruegel-esque images of workers in snow, a pounding and rhythmic editing as well as frequently using his favourite device of deploying screens of coloured plastic to break up and vary visual space.
‘The Working Class Goes to Heaven’ is an outstanding piece of work on so many levels. It’s thought provoking, engaging and blisteringly stimulating and is another example of just how great the pairing of Petri and Volonte was at their peak. Thematically it’s as relevant today as ever in our world of the gig economy, all consuming consumerism and where seemingly everything — sleep, work, sex, art — has become mechanised and dictated over by machines.
It’ll fire you up like nobody’s business and then some. Indeed, you might even want to do something about it… but that’s up to you, dear human.