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Employees at a Portuguese elevator factory first panic and finally dance when they get the impression their jobs are on the line in Pedro Pinho’s The Nothing Factory, a grainy, nearly three-hour opus that unexpectedly morphs from vérité-like neorealist drama into that unicorn of cinematic genres: a neorealist musical. This winner of a FIPRESCI critics prize in Cannes comes not only on the heels of, but also situates itself somewhere between, Marco Martins’ dark, documentary-like austerity drama Saint George and Miguel Gomes’ six-hour Arabian Nights trilogy, which looked at Portugal’s contemporary woes through a phantasmagorical and wildly inventive prism.
Unlikely to be a runaway hit either at home or abroad, this first fiction film from documentary director Pinho is specialized fare that should find berths at festivals and other forums catering to the higher end of the art house segment.
Pinho’s background in nonfiction is strongly felt especially in the first half. It offers a realistic and downbeat take on a group of blue-collar workers who start suspecting they might soon be out of a job when equipment from the factory where they work is removed at the behest of their superiors under cover of darkness. Since the employees co-own a small part of the factory, they call it theft, though the higher-ups seem to prefer the term relocation. This sets the stage for a battle between the increasingly desperate workers and management, which tries to coax the employees into accepting a severance package and calling it quits.
All this initially plays out with a good eye for naturalistic and occasionally wryly comic detail. A prim HR woman, for example, rattles on about seeing this unforeseen circumstance “as an opportunity,” even going as far as asking the wives of some workers to put pressure on their husbands to accept as “it might get worse and there won’t be any money down the line” with the company perhaps heading for bankruptcy.
This slice-of-life scenario, which must have played out in hundreds of factories in Portugal and across Europe and the U.S. since the crisis hit in 2008, was inspired by what happened at a Portuguese plant of elevator company Otis. The sense of anger and frustration that the men feel over the fact that their jobs have probably been moved overseas, uniquely for profit and with no regard for their years of work, is palpable but sadly not very new.
The straightforward, nonfiction-like material is laced with short montage sequences, set to rock music, in which capitalism and the current state of the Old Continent are discussed in voiceover. “The specter of its own end haunts Europe,” we are told, adding that this isn’t a normal end but “an endless ending.” It’s a good point, given that nine years on from 2008, Portugal apparently still hasn’t crawled out of the massive hole caused by the crisis and the imposed austerity measures that followed.
These short interludes place the happenings in a much larger socioeconomic and political context, while real-life interviews with the workers — the cast of non-professional actors are/were factory employees in real life — are also sprinkled throughout, adding further authenticity on a more intimate scale.
The workers are given roughly equal time at the factory, and there’s much discussion about the right course of action. Every possibility — a protest, a strike, accepting the offer of redundancy, setting up their own cooperative — seems to carry an element of risk. All this may make for realistic dialogue, but these scenes remain somewhat theoretical and abstract because the cast of characters never really becomes more than their respective points of view.
The only exception is Ze (Jose Smith Vargas), a laid-back, mutton-chopped worker in his late 30s also seen at home, where he shares his life with his Brazilian girlfriend, Carla (Carla Galvao); her young son, nicknamed Mowgli (Njamy Sebastiao); and the latter’s elderly father, who might be more combative than Ze realized.
What’s fascinating about Ze’s private life is that, unlike in films such as Saint George, Pinho and his three co-screenwriters refuse to give him a tragic dimension. What is threatened by the possible loss of his job is a normal, regular life — nothing more, nothing less. It’s a clearly deliberate choice, with Ze becoming a stand-in for hard-working, decent people all over the country and the continent. But it also makes it harder to buy into the story on a purely emotional level, as Ze’s situation feels generic, lacking any specifics that would make him and his situation more tangible and relatable.
The lines between fiction and nonfiction were blurred in Arabian Nights, like Gomes’ earlier work, and there’s some of that here, too, including a startling meeting with a couple of ostriches. But just as it’s revealed that Ze sings in a rock band and the narrative threatens to become too scattershot and directionless, the film zooms in on a supporting character, Italian director Daniele (Daniele Incalcaterra), who’s looking for an austerity-related subject in Portugal.
His ideas alter the shape, genre and plot developments of the third act, which, depending on the viewer, is where the pic either takes flight or derails. It’s certainly unexpected territory, and while the film as a three-hour whole feels unbalanced, a few heart-to-heart conversations between Daniele and Ze cut directly to the core of the material, exploring the uses of fiction and lies in situations like these.
For the record, The Nothing Factory might feel very contemporary, but its concept and title were actually inspired by a play from Dutch playwright and poet Judith Herzberg first performed in 1997.
Production company: Terratreme Filmes
Cast: Jose Smith Vargas, Carla Galvao, Njamy Sebastiao, Joaquim Bichana Martins, Daniele Incalcaterra, Rui Ruivo, Herminio Amaro, Antonio Santos
Director: Pedro Pinho
Screenplay: Pedro Pinho, Luisa Homem, Leonor Noivo, Tiago Hespanha, based on an idea by Jorge Silva Melo
Producers: Joao Matos, Leonor Noivo, Luisa Homem, Pedro Pinho, Susana Nobre, Tiago Hespanha
Director of photography: Vasco Viana
Editors: Claudia Oliveira, Edgar Feldman, Luisa Homem
Music: Jose Smith Vargas, Pedro Rodrigues
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Sales: Memento Films International
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