'Workforce' ('Mano de obra'): Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Modest but impactful.

The debut feature from Mexican writer-director David Zonana stars Luis Alberti ('Carmin Tropical').

A construction worker in Mexico City sees an unanticipated possibility to better his life after a sudden tragedy in Workforce (Mano de obra), the feature debut from writer-director David Zonana. Though modestly made, this drama is both fleet — at just 82 minutes — and very precise, steadily working its way toward a payoff that is understated yet packs a punch. It screened as part of the Platform competition at the Toronto International Film Festival and should see a healthy interest from other festivals for sales agent Wild Bunch, though it might be a little too small for theatrical sales.

In the opening scene, the organized chaos of a chic new home’s construction site, with its loud music, building materials everywhere and men working on various elements in different places, is disturbed when a construction worker suddenly falls from the second floor onto the patio. Zonana and ace cinematographer Carolina Costa (The Chosen Ones) find the perfect way to shoot this stunning opening. A fixed shot from the first floor looks out onto the patio, with the body falling from a place unseen above the camera and also landing in a place that’s just out of the frame, turning the fall into just a quick flash. It’s a perfect example of how mise-en-scene can reinforce thematic undercurrents, as the rich owner of the home will try and treat the death of the person who fell as just a small and unimportant blip on the radar. 

The protagonist of Workforce is thirty-something Francisco (Luis Alberti, Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Carmin Tropical), who not only works as a mason on the building site but is the brother of Claudio, the man who fell to his death. Sadly, Francisco barely has the time to digest his sibling’s sudden passing, again expressed through expert use of film grammar, with Zonana and veteran editor Oscar Figueroa Jara (The Crime of Father Amaro) cutting from the opening shot to a moment just before the funeral — the casket looming large in the front left of the image — and then directly to a shot of Francisco back at work. 

His brother’s widow Lupe (Jessica Galvez), who is pregnant, has not only lost her husband but also her future family’s breadwinner. But compensation for Claudio’s death is denied when the office of the homeowner (Rodrigo Mendoza) states that he was found to be drunk when he fell to his death. Both Lupe and Francisco know this is a lie, because Claudio was a teetotaller, but despite the fact that Francisco keeps asking his foreman (Ramiro Resendiz) about any news, he never receives an answer.

What’s more, despite the wealth of the owner, who is building this fancy new home with countless bedrooms and bathrooms even though he’s single and without kids, it’s clear that there’s disdain for the hard work of the people on his building site. They are frequently paid late, and one of Francisco’s colleagues, Shorty (Jonathan Sanchez), is withheld pay several times for a mirror that he broke, though the cost of the mirror is much less than what’s being withheld. 

Zonana, who also wrote the screenplay, shows how the rich are exploiting the working classes in this particular microcosm, which is largely familiar stuff. The production design by Ivonne Fuentes (Buy Me a Gun) contrasts the cramped, tiny and dark homes of people like Lupe and Francisco with the spacious white and bright new digs of the owner. Francisco doesn’t even have a proper roof for himself and when the torrential rains come at night, he’s frequently flooded out of his excuse for a home. 

(Spoilers in the following two paragraphs.) Around the halfway mark, there’s an ambiguous cut from Francisco entering the owner’s temporary building to the construction site the next day. The foreman tells the workers the site is closed and locked and the owner has hanged himself. Since the dead man doesn’t have any direct relatives, Francisco decides to move in permanently (he was already occasionally sleeping and showering there in secret during construction). This is the first small step toward the film’s biggest idea, which is that Francisco decides to invite other colleagues and their families to come and live in the home as well, with each clan getting a spacious bedroom and a bathroom. 

This could sound like a kind of socialist revenge scheme, with the working classes profiting from the fruits of their labor to the detriment of those who hired and (mostly) paid them. But Zonana isn’t interested in such a simplistic resolution. Instead, he shows how even within the utopian ideal of the large, free house with several families, friction starts to occur and people try to take advantage of each other. Because today’s poor could be tomorrow’s millionaires and people with power and money can only retain and amplify those things by exploiting the folks beneath them. It’s a message that’s not particularly sophisticated, but the way it is sketched here, on this very modest scale, is convincing. 

As the man who had the original idea, Francisco had a lot of good will toward him from his peers, but as money is needed to pay bills and a lawyer says he’ll be able to get them the deeds to the house, things start to become more complicated and Francisco turns into more of an anti-hero. To avoid his slide into gradually nastier behavior being interpreted as something positive, Zonana even includes a scene in which Francisco comes on to one of the daughters of a colleague. It’s an icky and disturbing scene that doesn’t actually show all that much, but one that gets the message across very clearly. It is reminiscent, perhaps not coincidentally, of the work of fellow Mexican director Michel Franco (Chronic, After Lucia), who is one of the producers here. 

As Francisco, Alberti is rarely shown in close-up. But his body language, like the sets and the mise-en-scene, speaks volumes. His character is not an evil man so much as an exploited figure who slowly becomes empowered when he manages to turn the tables on the system. The price for that, however, is paid by his peers.

Figueroa Jara’s editing becomes increasingly slippery in the second half, with several ellipses leaving out or only skimming over details, suggesting that what counts aren't the particulars of this story but the bigger picture. The final image, a high-angle shot when the rest of the film has been working with first-floor, central-perspective shots that suggested a level playing field of sorts, is a doozy. It ties all of Workforce’s loose ends together in a powerful yet matter-of-fact way. 

Production company: Teorema
Cast: Luis Alberti, Hugo Mendoza, Jonathan Sanchez, Horacio Celestino, Francisco Diaz, Karina Salazar
Writer-director: David Zonana
Producers: Michel Franco, David Zonana, Erendira Nunez Larios
Executive producer: Dario Yazbek Bernal 
Cinematography: Carolina Costa
Production design: Ivonne Fuentes
Editing: Oscar Figueroa Jara
Music: Murcof
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Platform)

Sales: Wild Bunch

In Mexican Spanish
82 minutes