La classe operaia va in paradiso / The Working Class Goes to Heaven (1971)

12 06 2013

I’ll begin by confessing I know next to nothing about Elio Petri, and until about a week ago, he was nowhere near my radar. It was a viewing of Mario Monicelli’s I compagni / The Organizer that sparked my interest in this particular film. That film and this one are united in a depiction of a post-industrial labor in Italy. Monicelli’s film, even when it does get serious, plays up most of its content for broad, sexually-driven comedy. Petri’s film is much different, and at times, the aggressive nature of its protagonist threatens to derail the film’s ideology. The film ultimately works not be being a particularly gripping human drama or looking nice, but by meditating on the effectiveness and differences between radical leftism and more central liberalism.


Lulu is the best worker at the factory and he’s fairly confident in his abilities. This endears him to his superiors and makes his coworkers, most of whom are unionized, loathe him. He’s indifferent to the political landscape. He comes home every night and he’s too tired to do anything with his girlfriend but he finds his fatigue peaceful. This changes when he cuts his finger at work, and slowly becomes more and more interested in the politics surrounding the factory. From here, two groups emerge. A political activist group concerned with starting a revolution and the more centrist union, which focuses on improving working conditions.


The way I describe the politics of this film presents two scenarios are oppositional binaries: the first being the workers v the bosses and the second is the one between the union and the activist. One could deduce just by the way that these pair of binaries are presented that Petri is equated the safe “moderate” union as being just as bad as the bosses. This is a pretty simplified reading, though and I think the film deserves a deeper one, though I will agree that Petri is ultimately in favor a revolutionary approach, even as the film is constantly presenting us with characters who engage with radicalism as insanity.


Even as the film seems to be empathizing with the worker’s skepticism towards the activists (all of whom appear to be students, and who are dismissed because they must be financially stable), it illustrates an important divide within the proletariat. It was probably relevant when class consciousness became a thing, and it sure as hell is important now. There’s still a stigma between the intellectuals and the actual workers, but the film sees this tension benefiting the factory’s owners. To be blunt, the fighting between the oppressed is capitalism’s preference. If those who are hurt by it can’t even agree with each other, they’ll never organize and the system has nothing to sweat over. This might all sound like too heavy for some, but the unfolding of the chaos outside the factory is actually enjoyable, if only because Petri himself is struggling within himself. The effect is that the film is not propaganda, it’s polemic yet smart and realistic.


While I don’t find any of Petri’s aesthetic choices particularly interesting (just a lot of steadicam and closeups really), there is something to be said about the way he introduces the factory to us. As the workers start their day, a voice tells them over the PA that they need to love and care for their machines as if they were a person. The initial images of the machines seem to follow the lead of the voice, Petri captures them in a way that almost seems sympathetic, despite the fact that they are indeed machines. Later, Lulu has casual sex with his coworker, Adalgisa. Their photographed just like the machines as they embrace. Their encounter is comically short and unpleasant. After all, Lulu only sees Adalgisa as sexual potential. She “serves” him, the same way he “serves” the factory. They’ve both been objectified.


It’s unfortunate that The Working Class Goes to Heaven hasn’t endured the test of time critically. It’s the type of work that begs for canonical consideration, if only because of its political discourse. There’s a lot to chew on here, but the few writings I’ve found on the film seem to gloss over or ignore the film’s biopolitical implications. Worse, some see Petri as identifying with the centrism of the union. I cannot understand how, though. The film ends with the union reuniting Lulu with the job he had lost for political reasons. As the good news is delivered, the camera observes his face. He’s feigning happy enough to convince the others he’s excited about work, but he realizes he’s back in life lived in service to capital. He later describes a dream while working, the symbolism is heavy and the sentiment is clear: this is not a way to live.





2 responses

21 08 2013

Hello. Nice blog!
Try to see Petri’s “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion”, it’s still amazing and stunning.

4 01 2014
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) | Cinema Talk

[…] back, I was deeply impressed by Elio Petri’s The Working Class Goes to Heaven , which while not earth-shattering, showed some hints of radicalism that was often separated from […]

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