‘Working Class Goes to Hell’ TIFF Review – A Class Critique Without Bite

There’s an air of sad desperation that hangs over Working Class Goes to Hell. Things have been rough in this unnamed Serbian town since a fire at the May Day Factory killed nine people. And while the town’s wealthy elite, including a shady bar owner, organized crime boss Snowman, and even the corrupt mayor are all prospering, the titular working class are struggling to get by.

The film opens with Ceca (Tamara Krcunovic), an unofficial labour organizer, leading a protest outside the factory owner’s office. He’s plotting to open a new eco-incinerator that will supposedly bring jobs, prosperity, and attention to the region, but it’s clear that wealth won’t trickle down to those who need it.

In the meantime, the residents get by working shifts at the local tavern, becoming de facto sex workers at a new hotel, or engaging in long shot schemes like selling chinchilla fur (“it’s the most sought after fur in the world” Ivan Djordjevic’s sad-sack Rade explains each time he mentions his entrepreneurial venture to laughing bystanders).

Small wonder that when two tall, dark men arrive in town, the workers fall over themselves to buy into a new kind of revolution. One man, Miya (Leon Lucev), is the adult son of the one of the nine men killed in the fire. He has been absent for a long time, attending a “wellness retreat” that has taught him “summoning” skills, so although he’s welcomed by the group, he knows little of their struggle.

Miya’s time away elicits a variety of reactions, including wariness, mocking derision, and hope from those who believe he can help their cause. There are jokes that equate his retreat with joining a cult, though Miya protests such claims. As the film progresses, however, and the man increasingly engages in more and more occult-like activity (and the others behave like acolytes), that cult designation doesn’t seem so far off the mark.

There’s also a second mysterious newcomer to town: a mostly mute man named Elijah (Momo Picuric) who is set up at the tavern and pimped out as a kind of faith healer. Individuals simply need to lay their hands on his (or vice versa) to gain the calm, the wisdom, or the courage to advocate for themselves.

Or at least that’s what they tell themselves is happening.

That ambiguity about just what is going on in Working Class Goes to Hell is evident throughout the film; in part because writer / director Mladen Djordjevic encourages both readings. These men are charlatans, but there’s also a recurring visual motif of dead birds being discovered all over town. So what’s the truth?

Regardless of whether something supernatural is at work, it’s evident that neither man is who he (or the townspeople) declare him to be. Miya’s behaviour, particularly towards Ceca in matters pertaining to sex, are highly suspect and there’s a hint of malicious intent in how Elijah follows young Danica (Lidija Kordic) around.

As the film progresses, the behaviour of the group becomes more erratic. Between the sacrifices, the pentagrams, and the talk of worshipping someone/something new, these desperate, poverty-stricken people begin to shift away from the passive, downtrodden individuals seen protesting at the factory at film’s start.

The result is, predictably, a descent into greed, selfishness, and vice. There’s an accidental murder around the 2/3 mark of the film that is horrifying in part because of the details, but also because it reinforces how the workers have become so fixated on their own problems, their own ploys, and their own desires that the death barely elicits a tear or a shrug.

The issue is that these kinds of moral dilemmas should be fascinating, but by this point Working Class Goes to Hell is wearing its thematic interest on its sleeve in a manner that is both safe and predictable. The film is a satire about the lengths that desperate people will go to obtain what they deem theirs, but it lacks bite, refusing to let its characters go wild and truly buck the system.

Even in the obvious conclusion, when they finally organize themselves into a mob to revolt, not only does the action pull its punches with regard to violence, there’s no moment of realization when the workers realize that they’ve been played for fools.

This is, in large part, because the characters aren’t particularly smart: all of the workers’ efforts to regain wealth and happiness fail because they’re too easily manipulated and treated like pawns.

Throughout the film, Djordjevic peppers in scenes of the group watching a trashy Jerry Springer meets Big Brother-style reality TV show (at one point Olivera Viktorovic’s Draginja even states that she hopes to appear on one such program and become famous).

Do they ever realize that their lives aren’t that dissimilar from the junk food programming they watch on TV? Or that they’re the ones being manipulated for entertainment? The film ends on a telling wink to the audience that confirms it knows, but that moment never arrives for the characters. Is it funny? Sure…but not in a satisfying way.

That sentiment sums up Working Class Goes to Hell. At times amusing, at times horrifying, always gently political and satirical, but never with enough bite or conviction.

Were it a 90-minute feature about idiots who get in over their heads, the film would be far more enjoyable. At two+ hours, however, it makes for a film that is both too drawn-out and too obvious.

3 skulls out of 5

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