(The 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) ran September 7-17 and HtN has tons of coverage from the fest! ! Check out Chris Reed’s movie review of Working Class Goes to Hell. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
Times are tough in a small Serbian town. 5 years ago a fire destroyed a local factory, killing 9 people. It remains unrestored, a blight on the area and a source of lingering grievance. No one has yet been held responsible. The rich get richer, and the poor continue to suffer.
This is the backstory for Mladen Đorđević’s Working Class Goes to Hell, simultaneously a searing examination of capitalist misbehavior and a thriller tinged with supernatural elements. As the lot of the working class gets no better, they begin to explore alternate ways of getting what they want. If Satan offers a helping hand, why not? And even if the director lets his tale go on for too long, with a messy narrative in need of trimming, he still delivers an appealingly whacko and unique work.
The widowed Ceca (Tamara Krcunović, Asimetrija), whose husband was among the fire’s victims, leads the labor union that stages frequent political protests against the factory owners and the slow pace of their criminal case. She’s taken the orphaned Danica (Lidija Kordić, Sisterhood), whose mother also died, under her wing. Both struggle to make ends meet. That’s a common refrain.
Soon, a new arrival throws the group’s dynamic into disarray. Mija (Leon Lučev, Murina) has just returned from a lengthy stay in a Belgrade jail, where he learned how to read both cards and molten lead thrown into water as various forms of fortune telling. He also mastered some more twisted secrets, which will slowly come to light (or to darkness, rather).
It’s a sad place, most residents reduced to some form of prostitution, be it of body or soul. The women have it especially hard, the local pub not much more than a functioning brothel. Ceca takes a job there, as a waitress, but before long finds herself hit on by men who have returned from abroad with some extra cash. Meanwhile, just on the outskirts of town, a new hotel is going up that will be yet another playground for the wealthy.
Mija, however, is busy taking over the union with his own novel ideas, while at the same time seducing Ceca (initially with questionable consent, but later with her full participation). Everyone is deeply religious, but the region’s miserable state of affairs creates conditions ripe for Mija to bring his peers into a series of ceremonies filled with blood and five-pointed stars.
At the same time, the mute Danica (she hasn’t spoken since her mother’s death) discovers a disturbing mystery in an old workers’ resort she frequents. Following that revelation, yet another strange figure walks into town, soon taken to be either a great healer or the devil himself. The road to hell may normally be paved with good intentions, but in this film, the journey is as damned as the destination.
The visuals are infused with grime, as if Đorđević (The Life and Death of a Porno Gang) asked his cinematographer to first dip the camera in dirt before each setup. Faces give off anxious stares, no one free from the pressure of everyday living. This is not just one depressed town, but an entire nation still struggling from the 1990s post-communist era and genocidal civil war. They’re all fallen angels, a long way from heaven.
Still, the sins lie most heavily on the men. Ceca is tough, but even she is unaware of how easily her male compatriots can give into their worst impulses. When the working class finally revolts, she quickly loses control of the situation, thanks to masculine duplicity. Don’t quite count her out, though. She sticks around to fight another day. Hell can wait.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)
2023 Toronto International Film Festival; Mladen Đorđević; Working Class Goes to Hell movie review