starring Marcello Mastroianni, Micheline Presle, Cristina Gaioni, Salvo Randone
screenplay by Pasquale Festa Campanile & Massimo Franciosa & Tonino Guerra & Elio Petri
directed by Elio Petri
La Classe operaia va in paradiso
Lulu the Tool
starring Mietta Albertini, Giovanni Bignamini, Flavio Bucci, Donato Castellaneta
screenplay by Elio Petri & Ugo Pirro
directed by Elio Petri
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover What a difference a decade makes: watching Elio Petri's first film (1961's The Lady Killer of Rome (L'Assassino)) and one of his most honoured (1971's The Working Class Goes to Heaven (La Classe operaia va in paradiso)) reveals just how the march of history can change a director from distinguished craftsman to agent provocateur. One marvels at how the Left-inflected debut, made before the upheavals of the late-Sixties shook up film aesthetics, goes down easy and comfortably, while the Left-committed later film, made in the miasma after those upheavals failed, grabs the viewer by the lapels and shakes him or her until he or she cries uncle. And one is grateful that that sea change happened: it's The Working Class Goes to Heaven which looks best from the present vantage point, because it makes its points with a desperate urgency that the earlier film, however pointed it might seem, can't hope to match.
This is not to say that The Lady Killer of Rome is without its charms: the film is a frequently clever examination of a cynical social climber who finds himself in trouble. Arrested at his home and complete with a phoney alibi to cover his infidelity, our antique-dealer hero (an especially suave Marcello Mastroianni) soon learns that he's under suspicion for having murdered his ex-lover. Unfortunately for him, he's not noted for his loving-kindness (he takes financial advantage of the desperate as he relieves them of their valuables) and is, romantically speaking, a cad, having exploited the soon-to-be-deceased lover for career purposes while romancing a younger bubblehead under her nose. All of this inhumanity seems to point to his being the killer, plunging him into a Kafka-lite nightmare that forces him to face up to his own brutishness.
There's nothing especially wrong with this; in fact, for a first film, The Lady Killer of Rome is a remarkably assured work. Petri and co-scenarist Tonino Guerra sturdily structure the transitions between the present-tense investigation and the flashbacks to Mastroianni's loutish behaviour; conflated, they mix the possibility that he could be both a jerk and a killer. One is never quite sure, until the very end, whether he's done the deed or not, as his grasping bourgeois greed make him seem as obvious a figure as any. And the film is smoothly shot and seamlessly edited, without any of the roughness that one would normally associate with a first feature.
What's wrong with the film is its lack of conviction. The filmmakers seem a little too pleased with themselves for having constructed and convicted this cad, and seem to think that they've done their job in having exposed him; there's no real attempt to connect him to the world around him, meaning that the film's power dissipates. In the end, the film is a little too Rod Serling for its own good, trading in cosmic retribution for a straw man and leaving us with a little piece of dogma to go home with. It's not enough to destroy the film's small achievement, but it's enough to keep it in the category of "minor efforts."
No such problem occurs with The Working Class Goes to Heaven, which is as outraged and explosive as Lady Killer is modest and obsequious. The film deals with a factory worker, Lulu (Gian Maria Volonte), who is so bitter and cynical that he identifies completely with his job. While this does nothing to endear him to his co-workers, who would like some regulations on the piece-work quotas that come down from management, nothing can stop Lulu from assuming the role of the machine and spitting bile back on his less conscientious colleagues. All of this changes when Lulu is wounded on the job and temporarily laid-off: he starts listening to the communists goading the workers outside of the factory and wondering if they don't have a point.
Petri had clearly gone through a transformation by this point, chucking the gentle finger-wagging of his debut for a more detailed analysis and a more urgent technique. As Lulu becomes a pawn, trapped in the triangle between the malevolent owners, the ineffectual union, and the self-serving radicals who would lead him to revolution, the film telescopes from the outer social mechanism to one of its cogs, and shows how the system works through the navigations of one of its most expendable members. Furthermore, it expresses, like no other film, the horrible monotony and misery of life on the assembly line, in which one is simply a machine that earns money and endures that fate no matter who pulls the strings. This is no mere "message" picture: it's a bomb that goes off in your head.
And where the earlier film traded in a seamless naturalism, The Working Class Goes to Heaven is a barrage of shots that slap the viewer back into consciousness. Few images are as haunting as the dehumanized mass of workers walking down the path to the factory, or the montages that bring together Volonte and his machine: the lighting is a bilious yellow, further enhancing the sick atmosphere of the factory; his scenes at home are underlit to show his confusion in dealing with his common-law wife and her child. Structurally, it slams its scenes together with violent speed, overloading you with information and forcing you to assume the deer-in-the-headlights confusion of its hero--even composer Ennio Morricone is in on the act, contributing a score that lies somewhere between machine-press and machine-gun. The film is a non-stop, breakneck charge at the audience, and it stays with--some might say traumatizes--you longer than a Hollywood liberal number ever would.
I was unfamiliar with the work of Elio Petri until the Cinematheque Ontario's current retrospective, so I can't speak with any authority on his work. But if you were to choose from his films, I would put my money on something from the late-Sixties or later: On evidence of his debut as well as his Palme d'or winner, the engaged Petri is better than the merely engaging. Originally published: February 21, 2003.