Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 21, 2018 5:15 pm 
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Labor dispute at an elevator factory outside Lisbon comes to life - almost

Portuguese documentary filmmaker Pedro Pinho's three-hour feature - with musical numbers toward the end - might be the most interesting failure of the year. Though it's won festival prizes, regular audiences won't have the patience for it, nor should they, because it's an experiment that's overong, its handling of issues of capitalism and collective factory ownership still left nebulous even after endless discussion.

But the topics get a chance to breathe, and then some, and given their complexity and importance, that's a good thing. Ultimately how this movie was made and why are more significant than the unwieldy result. You could build a film course around it: you'd just need to make clear to your students that this isn't an example of a good film, just one that's fruitful to study and compare with cinephile favorites like Ken Loach and Miguel Gomez, Loach being germane for the worker-centric social realism, Gomez for the documentary-fiction element and focus on Portugal's economic crisis. And this reps a rare example of a neorealist musical - at the end, that is, mixture of genres being another useful subject for film study.

Pinho bases his story (the title drawn from the play De Nietsfabriek by Dutch writer Judith Herzberg) on the Fateleva (Otis) elevator factory in Portugal, which was actually taken over by the workers and run collectively from 1975 to 2016. He uses actual workers, rather than professional actors. But in his version, the worker takeover begins in the present time. The owners try to seize the assets, and the workers block them.

They have no union, as such, but they have solidarity, and a creepy Human Resources lady sent in to try to lure key workers into a buyout of individual jobs fails. Then, the question is how to proceed. They get a lawyer, to deal with the cops. Many heated and lengthy discussions follow.

Much of the film is occupied with debates among the workers, and others, about how to proceed. There is - troublingly, Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian feels, and I'd agree it jars - the occasional self-reflective onscreen appearance of a film director as a character, telling the non-actors how to go, do it again, make it simpler and more basic this time, things like that.

There is a lengthy debate of capitalism and marxist theory re factory takeovers mostly in French, why, we're not told; but that discussion is like plunging into a searching economics seminar that takes as its scope the whole future of human endeavor. It's thought-provoking in a way that a neater scene with tighter dialogue could not be, and it's a key example of how this movie is fascinating and instructive while still unmistakably a dramatic failure.

Most of the actors, though vivid individuals, whose feelings we are given time to feel, don't get depicted in depth. The exception is Ze (José Smith Vargas), his adopted son, nicknamed Mowgli, and his girlfriend Daniele (Daniele Incalcaterra), who's Brazilian. Them we follow home. And they, especially when Mowgli is involved, truly come to life.

But one might compare this to Laurent Cantet's 1999 film Human Resources, about a factory strike in France, in which there's a wrenching, incredibly dramatic and human and specific conflict that develops between a working class father and his educated son who's just joined management staff. Pinho is too wound up in the improvised general debates to think of developing the ideological and practical conflicts in terms of individual personalities.

Here is a proposal: the natural perceived length of a movie is an hour and a half to two hours. If you make one that's longer, a sense of protracted time will be produced in the viewers. In this case, the three-hour length and the series of long drawn-out discussions among the workers has the effect of making the action seem real-time. But that effect becomes unwieldy, because you can't convey the series of steps required for a worker takeover of a factory in lengthy real-time segments. Hence Pinho's Nothing Factory, though absorbing for long stretches, ultimately gets bogged down and goes nowhere - except into song.

The Nothing Factory/A Fábrica de Nada, 177 mins., debuted at Cannes MAY 2017 and won the FIPRESCI Prize; at about 20 other festivals including Munich, Toronto, Vienna, and Busan. Screened as part of MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's New Directors/New Films series for 2018.

ND/NF showtimes:
Saturday, April 7, 2:00pm [FSLC]
Sunday, April 8, 4:30pm [MoMA]


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