Toronto 2023 Review: WORKING CLASS GOES TO HELL, Serbian Justice Served Slow And Absurd
Early in Mladen Djordjevic’s tragicomic satire, Working Class Goes To Hell, a young girl eats her lunch in the husk of a dead factory. A faded mural “Long Live Labour Day” peels off the burnt out walls above her. She eventually joins her union brethren outside protesting, by grabbing a sign with a picture of her dead mother to hold up for the TV cameras.You may think from this deliberate intro, that this is a kitchen-sink realism drama. You would be wrong.
Those who might have encountered Djordjevic’s transgressively hilarious 2009 film, Life and Death of A Porno Gang, or wondered why this film was playing in the Toronto International Film Festival's Midnight Madness programme, might be hip to what is what. Indeed, here things slowly, deliberately, prove that is decidedly not the case. Not even close. There is a frothy, and often funny, stew of genres at play in his most recent socio political hullabaloo: A ‘save our ailing town’ fictional docudrama, a seance-haunting exorcism, a violently absurd comedy of revenge, a sexual bedroom burlesque, a ghost story, and of course, the plight of the Serbian proletariat.
“Can we move on to something that makes sense?” pleads Cece, a widowed expressively faced woman, trying to hold her eclectic band of union workers to the topic at hand at the meeting taking place in her living room. It has been several years since their factory burned to the ground and left a number of workers dead. The after-effects smashed families, and the entire small town’s industry and dignity, while the legal processes play out. TV coverage indicates things to be tilting in favour of the corrupt bosses, whom Cece and the others suspect to have started the fire for the insurance money. Money that is, ironically, being leveraged to develop a state of the art garbage incinerator plant and the side-hustle of an upscale brothel, both of which are boldly proclaimed by the politicians are going to put their small town on the map.
This ugly and vulgar progress is carried out for public consumption on the boob tube, where the workers themselves are (figuratively) the garbage to be incinerated, or used for their bodies, all in the name of crony capitalism. Anger and despair leads the gang of the ragtag blue-collar workers to pursue other means of getting compensation for their loss, and revenge for their loved ones: supernatural means.
When one of their more charismatic members, Mija, returns from a sojourn in Belgrade with some skills in Tarot reading and augury (using hot lead and cold water), well, things start to get out of control. While the group jokingly insists his newfound skills come from a cult, he earnestly declares that it was not a cult, but rather group therapy. Once this ‘mystical’ door is open, however, the rest of the band of brothers and sisters, eventually even the groups surly skeptic (who lost one of his sons to the fire) starts to come around. The pragmatic, harried Cece, surrenders her last vestiges of self control, which clearly was not working, and enters into a sexual relationship with Mija in an effort to move past her trauma. It is not long before pigeons start dropping dead out of the sky, and a silent and creepy, Jesus-like man rises up from the nethers of the factory basement, wandering the town laying on healing hands; portending whatever the hell is about to happen. Either way, the working folks go from holding up protest signs, to looking beyond, and praying for signs.
Djordjevic haș a way with an ensemble cast (again, note Life and Death of a Porno Gang), and a superb knack for casting interesting faces. Not just Tamara Krcunovic, who plays Cece with a deep mode of expression that is both determined and exhausted. Nor Danica, the young girl from the beginning that might be destined to end up like Cece as the town chews up her beauty in the name of employment. The entire laundry list of characters who make up the films incredibly large cast are character types that occasionally transcend their types.
In the same vein, Working Class Goes To Hell proves to be much more than the sum of its parts. It is a master class in escalation. It inevitably pulls together disparate ideas, tangents, and muck-raking asides into a cohesive, satirically-biting, whole. And it does so without ever losing sight of the needs and fears and wants of his characters. And somehow it is entertaining and populous and arty and a bit trashy. Despite the ludicrous chain of events, and their responses to these events, the towns folks (even the politicians and gangsters) always feel like real people; ones with lives outside the frame. Their hangups and their quirks are foregrounded, for laughs and tears, amongst the steady, inevitably increasing chaos.
What I mean to say, is things are fleshed out here over its slow-burn two hours. I mean that both figurative and literally, as nearly everyone in the film is naked at one point or another. Spit on, bled on, nailed through the forehead, or ahem, ejaculated. As Mija’s rituals get livelier and stranger, the film demonstrates how a bunch of down on their luck individuals, with nothing to lose, can morph into an angry mob full of purpose, even if they cannot fully see the mechanisms in action. Worker solidarity rages against the machine of Serbian capitalism in the saloons, sex chambers, and meat lockers, with consequences both righteous and tragic. All the while, humour and self deprecation is the secret weapon, both a driver of the story, and coping mechanism for the results.
The mixture of tones and genre create something certainly more substantial than the escapist Reality TV degradation that much of the towns folk distract themselves with. TVs are perpetually on in the background in the film. Watching crazy people on Jerry Springer, those worse off or with weird problems than yours, to help make your own situation not seem so apocalyptic. The film, and the act of watching and commiserating with those within it, turns out to be group therapy after all. Long live Labour Day!
Working Class Goes to Hell
- Mladen Djordjevic
- Mladen Djordjevic
- Tamara Krcunovic
- Leon Lucev
- Momo Picuric