The working class did not reach paradise

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By MARIAROSARIA FABRIS*

The impact of a film on a society can be measured not only by the repercussions it had when it was released, but also by how it is remembered.

In April 1975, José Carlos Avellar, while reviewing the Brazilian film Free pass (1974), by Osvaldo Caldeira, emphasizing how work itself could be a means of alienation, gave his text to the Newspapers in Brazil the title "The Working Class Goes to Heaven". In May 1979, Luiz Israel Febrot, when analyzing how the Brazilian working class was presented in The fall, by Ruy Guerra, published in the “Cultural Supplement” of The State of S. Paul, “The working class arrives at the cinema”.

In October 1981, Luiz Carlos Merten, when reflecting on the clash between immobility and transformation present in They don't wear black tie, by Leon Hirszman, titled his article for the newspaper Zero hour “The working class far from paradise”. Outside the cinematographic scope, just to cite one example, the material for the Folha de S. Paul (April 2006), in which Maria Inês Dolci made an X-ray of the crisis that hit private higher education, received the title “Working class does not study in paradise”.

What does the choice of these titles tell us? She tells us that, although never named, the film that Elio Petri made in 1971, remained, for our critics (and society), as one of the parameters to define what an ethical and politically committed cinema (and behavior) would be. And this is curious, because in Italy, The working class goes to heaven (The working class goes to paradise) was the target of violent polemics and furious attacks, coming mainly from the bourgeoisie (for considering themselves attacked), from intellectuals (for feeling excluded) and from the militant left-wing critics, who pointed out as defects exactly those aspects that had driven Brazilian critics to praise him.

Elio Petri had learned from Giuseppe De Santis, for whom he was assistant director, to combine social content with spectacle, involving viewers with his burning and current themes, already in his previous film, Investigation of a citizen above suspicion (Investigation on a citizen above reproach, 1969), whose protagonist was Gian Maria Volonté, the same interpreter who gave life to the worker Ludovico Massa (aka Lulu), a fetish actor of the engaged Italian cinema of the 1970s.

Engaged cinema had asserted itself in Italy in the previous decade, mainly thanks to filmmakers such as Francesco Rosi, Gillo Pontecorvo, Marco Ferreri, Ermanno Olmi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Giuliano Montaldo, Vittorio De Seta, Bernardo Bertolucci, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Valentino Orsini and Marco Bellocchio, many of whom not only drew on the legacy of the great neorealist directors – Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and Vittorio De Sica/Cesare Zavattini – but had also participated in their productions (in various capacities) before making their debut as directors.

Although continuing along these lines, Elio Petri (as well as Giuseppe De Santis, a neorealist who did not fit perfectly into the mold of this cinematographic movement) did not disdain entertainment, as a strategy to captivate the general public, without giving up ideological rigor – a rigor that became will accentuate on All mode (All mode, 1976), violent libel against Christian Democracy. It is important to remember that Elio Petri was counting on the collaboration of the writer Ugo Pirro, who, as a screenwriter, was characterized by the search for a cinema that never shied away from making its political and sociological intentions explicit, even in historical reconstruction films.

If, on the one hand, The working class goes to heaven fits into the trail opened by neorealism with The Bicycle Thief (bike thieves, 1948), by Vittorio De Sica – in which, probably for the first time in Italian cinema, a worker was the protagonist –, on the other hand, one cannot fail to point out how he dialogues with yet another great success with critics and audiences in Brazil , which, like Elio Petri's film, was not much appreciated in its home country: I compagni (the companions, 1963), by Mario Monicelli.

In this work, Mario Monicelli offers an anti-rhetorical view of the first workers' struggles in Italy at the end of the XNUMXth century, by choosing to narrate them in a “comic” way. There is no exaltation of its protagonists, but much more a feeling of bankruptcy of the “great ideals” in the face of the harsh reality (made, at most, of small conquests), which does not mean giving up on them, hoping for a renewal of future society.

By portraying, in the heat of the moment, the contradictions of a proletariat divided between two myths – that of the revolution and that of bourgeois well-being –, it is this same disenchanted vision that will move Elio Petri. Just remember the end of The working class goes to heaven, when Ludovico, after the strike, is hired again, being, however, demoted to working on the assembly line, and tells his companions a dream he had: the wall that Militina/Salvo Randone spoke about (this former worker, that Lulu visits from time to time in the hospice, could ideally be the continuation of Pautasso/Folco Lulli monicelliano), on the other side, there is not paradise, but only a great fog, and they are all still condemned to the same work, perhaps to ever.

Magazines "with the sense of the poi”, as they say in Italian, that is, with a judgment a posteriori, which mainly allows for a critical distance from the events of the years in which they were shot, both Mario Monicelli's film and Elio Petri's deserve a reassessment.

We can't forget that I compagni it comes after the Tambroni government (July 1960), when Italy, in the face of strikes that continued to break out in factories, breathed the air of fascist restoration. A year later, Pier Paolo Pasolini launched Beggar (social misfit, 1961), in which he condemned his protagonist, a lumpenproletarian with no prospects in capitalist society, to death. The same lack of perspective that had also distressed Aldo, the worker from The Scream (The Scream, 1956-1957), by Michelangelo Antonioni, who ends up throwing himself from the top of a factory tower, deserted due to the strike of his companions. These films were also attacked by the left: Antonioni's, for attributing a bourgeois existential crisis to a representative of the working class; that of Pasolini, for presenting a social condition with no way out.

Italy had entered the 1960s divided between the tree economic growth and the beginning of union and student struggles, the pragmatism of “savage capitalism” and the utopia of “we want everything” of its opponents (“Vogliamo tutto” was one of the slogans of the FIAT workers in the strikes of that period), the violence of the State and the violence of its opponents.

The practice of the workers struggles of 1968-1969 – mainly that of the “warm autumn” (“hot autumn”) of 1969 – adds to the experience of the student movement, whose manifestations, in Italy, precede those of the French May, and some highly politicized groups begin to emerge, such as the Metropolitan Political Collective, from Milan, in September 1969, from whose ranks some of the future founders of the Br (Red Brigades, i.e. Red Brigades), a year later. 

The predominantly right-wing government tried to deal with these demonstrations by promoting violent repression in which there was no lack of attacks - attributed to neo-fascist groups Revolutionary Armed Nuclei e New Order –, which can be classified as true carnage, including that of Piazza Fontana (Milan, December 12, 1969), which inaugurated the so-called years of lead in Italy, provoking, as a reaction, the beginning of armed struggle on the part of some factions of the extra-parliamentary left (in addition to the Br, lotta continues, Proletarian Armed Nuclei, Power Worker etc.).

The Italian Communist Party, for its part, fearing the “white coups” of the right and a consequent reactionary turn (a fear that would be accentuated with the fall of Salvador Allende, on September 11, 1973, in Chile) and worried about a probable failure once power was won, he would propose the so-called “historical compromise”, based on collaboration between communists and Catholics.

This is the background of The working class goes to heaven, which is why one could not expect any glorious end to the events that Elio Petri set out to portray, nor a victorious exit for his characters, thanks to the intervention of the unions, as perhaps the parliamentary lefts would have wanted and which probably led them to condemn the film from an ideological point of view.

Elio Petri was not interested in hiding a truth that was appearing increasingly dark for Italian society as a whole (it is worth remembering that in 1970, he had collaborated on a documentary about Giuseppe Pinelli, the anarchist railwayman, who, accused of having placed the bombs in Piazza Fontana, “flew” from the fourth floor of the Milan police headquarters) and, more specifically for the working class, as he will, in The best youth (the best of youth, 2003), Marco Tullio Giordana, the same director who, in Piazza Fontana (Piazza Fontana: an Italian conspiracy, 2012), will take the side of the State.

Em The best youth, by transforming a worker from the south of Italy who works in a factory in Turin into a small entrepreneur in civil construction, turning the defeat of a category into a personal benefit, Giordana not only adopts the point of view of the “bosses”, but also it does not give much importance to struggles for claims, treating the mass layoffs that affected industrial workers in the 1970s as a mere statistical issue, that is, of cost adequacy.

And to think that, in addition to Elio Petri, other filmmakers had faced, in those years, this same theme of the violent impact suffered by workers who left rural areas in the face of the dehumanization imposed by industrial logic: in this sense, it is exemplary, although controversial, Trevico-Torino… via Fiat-Nam (1972), by Ettore Scola. Not to mention the anticipation represented by Rocco and His Brothers (Rocco and his brothers, 1960), by Luchino Visconti, whose theme will be taken up in a much more cruel way by Gianni Amelio in So they laughed (That's how you laugh.

Other workers populated the Italian cinematography of that period, before or after Lulu Massa, such as Metellus (Metellus, 1970), by Mauro Bolognini, or Metallurgist Mimì wounded in honor (Mimi the Metalworker, 1972), by Lina Wertmüller, whose directors, like Petri, used the styles of the so-called Italian comedy to denounce an economic policy that only aimed at maximum production to generate ever-increasing profit. No film, however, has taken so vehemently to the screen as The working class goes to heaven, the theme of alienation, a word dear to the militant left of that period: alienation through work, an issue already present in a lesser-known film by Ermanno Olmi in Brazil, The place (Opposite, 1961), and in “Renzo e Luciana”, episode; by Mario Monicelli in Boccaccio '70 (Boccaccio 70.

Departing from the story of a boy of peasant origin who gets a job in the big city, Olmi shows all the squalor of a life conditioned by a methodical and repetitive routine. In “Renzo e Luciana”, by transposing to the screen the short story “L'avventura dei due sposi”, written by Italo Calvino in 1958 – which, later, will be part of the volume Difficult loves (1970) –, Monicelli, adding some elements of I promise sposi (The bride and groom, 1840-1842), by Alessandro Manzoni, gives the misadventures of a young couple, whose intimacy is affected by work shifts at different times, a well-marked social connotation: that of an ironic critique of the alienation imposed by the “servants of capital”. (modern masters of rope and cleaver, like the Manzonian Dom Rodrigo) to the working class.

An alienation from which, more than ever, in the face of the dictates of the new world economy – which, little by little, are withdrawing all the labor rights won over more than a century of struggles –, the working class needs to wake up, not to reach paradise, but so that your dream doesn't turn into Lulu Massa's nightmare.

*Mariarosaria Fabris is a retired professor at the Department of Modern Letters at FFLCH-USP. Author, among other texts, of “Contemporary Italian Cinema” (in: Contemporary World Cinema, Papyrus).


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