Workers: Berlin Review

Workers Still - H 2013

Workers Still - H 2013

Aesthetically arresting contemplation piece works more as a museum item than as a feature-length narrative.

Mexican director Jose Luis Valle's feature debut follows a long-separated couple during the dog days leading up to their retirement.

BERLIN -- A beautifully crafted, narratively constrained piece of Mexican minimalism, Jose Luis Valle’s Workers follows a long-separated couple during the dog days leading up to their retirement and perhaps, a better life. Composed of roving long takes and meticulous widescreen compositions, this contemplative work is rich in visual pleasures but rather strapped in the story department, and could play just as easily, if not better, on a gallery wall as in a festival. Theatrical gigs will be hard to come by for this Berlinale Panorama premiere, but Valle definitely remains a director to watch.

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Clocking in at two hours, the movie will test those viewers looking for something beyond pure aesthetic eye-candy and a certain, hyper-realistic brand of art filmmaking. Which is not to say that Valle -- making his feature debut after several prizewinning shorts and documentaries -- doesn’t have an eye for character and detail; it’s just that such talents are often at the service of a rigidly constructed and emotionally distant work that tends to favor formalism over everything else.

Set over a ten-year period beginning in 1999, the film follows a pair of Tijuana-based laborers, cutting back and forth between them while offering hints that they were once an item. On one end there’s factory janitor, Rafael (Jesus Padilla), a man so taciturn and withdrawn he can barely speak up when his company’s malicious HR manager refuses to grant him retirement rights. And on the other end there’s Lidia (Susan Salazar), a crafty, though equally tight-lipped chambermaid who runs the household of a widow (Vera Talaia) so obsessed with her dog, she feeds it a daily ration of filet mignon and then winds up bequeathing the pooch her entire fortune.

Juxtaposing Rafael’s sad and arduous daily routine -- including a rather touching subplot where a friendly teenager teaches him to read -- with the absurd extravagances of Lidia’s boss, Valle convincingly reveals the extremes of modern Mexican life, where some folks barely scrape by to pay for a broken-down mobile home, while others live a life of garish luxury devoid of all human affection.

Yet while such observations are intriguing early on, especially when the plot is ripe with possibilities, they aren’t quite enough to sustain a film that ultimately provides few insights into its characters’ psyches, opting for a detached viewpoint that relies much more on images than content.

As images go, Workers does offer up several impressive moments, with Valle and D.P. Cesar Gutierrez Miranda allowing scenes to play out in extended master shots that favor the actors as much as their environments, in a manner reminiscent of works by contemporary photographers like Jeff Wall, Martin Parr and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Indeed, one early street sequence seems to last for an entire reel without any of the protagonists present at all, and while it’s a captivating bit of stylized realism, it’s a technique that tends to keep one at arm’s length from the world before the lens.

Production companies: Zensky Cine, IMCINE, Autentika Films

Cast: Jesus Padilla, Susana Salazar, Sergio Limon, Vera Talaia

Director, screenwriter: Jose Luis Valle

Producer: Jose Luis Valle

Executive producer: Elsa Reyes

Directors of photography: Cesar Gutierrez Miranda

Art director: Gabriela Santos del Olmo

Costume designer: Galaxia Bautista

Editor: Oscar Figueroa

Sales Agent: MPM Film

No rating, 120 minutes