Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film

Working Class Goes to Hell — Mladen Djordjevic [TIFF ’23 Review]

September 18, 2023

Set in a small Balkan town still reeling from a tragic factory fire several years earlier, Mladen Djordjevic’s Working Class Goes to Hell finds a local community combating ruthless capitalism with a decidedly creative solution: Satanic worship. Labor organizer and de facto den mother to a cadre of sour-faced ex-coworkers, Ceca (Tamara Krcunović) coordinates protests and petitions the courts on behalf of the dozen factory employees — including her late husband — who died in what was essentially a preventable industrial accident, but she’s failed to generate justice or anything close to compensatory damages. Adding insult to injury, the renovated and soon to reopen factory was promptly privatized, freezing out the existing workforce and thus decimating the local economy — the only two employers in town are narrowed to a sad tavern and a new brothel being run by a small-time gangster who happens to be tight with the mayor. Once new recruit Mija (Leon Lučev) starts attending the union meetings, discussions of legal strategies and public pressure campaigns begin to fall by the wayside, replaced by incantations, seances, and rumors that he converses with the dead. If Mija is truly able to channel the dark arts to connect with the great beyond, so the thinking goes, perhaps then he can conjure something that will serve as a vessel for the union’s vengeance.

With a title like Working Class Goes to Hell, there’s quite a bit to live up to, even by gonzo Midnight Madness standards, and it would seem that the film is paying homage to Elio Petri’s 1972 Cannes winner, The Working Class Goes to Heaven. However, what the former most resembles, curiously enough, is the long-running comedy series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (one can easily imagine the title in that show’s instantly recognizable white font-over-black background), not least because of how much both works hinge upon wilful misunderstandings, harebrained schemes, and reckless leaps to conclusions. After Mija begins to promote the all-encompassing powers of a vaguely defined yet emphatically not-God figure — the sort that allegedly responds to blood sacrifices, pagan symbols, and pentagrams drawn on the floor — the townsfolk begin to attribute all manner of signs and wonders to this dark entity — which appears to have taken the physical form of a golem-like mute who may have risen from the dead. Or perhaps he’s simply an alcoholic vagabond easily provoked to commit violence on their behalf. Either way, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

Djordjevic’s film presents its characters as proud ex-communists hardened by a difficult life (everyone in the film looks about twenty years older than their actual age) yet fundamentally unserious. They’re all consumed with the petty grievances and delusions of a better life while half their labor meetings are spent gathered around watching trashy reality TV. The union members abandon their understandable skepticism of the supernatural based on the most specious of logics, treating coincidences as an excuse to double down on their Satanic worship; it’s the sort of film where you can track everyone’s level of devotion by how willing they are to get completely naked for their prayer circles. It also becomes apparent to the audience rather quickly, if not to the other characters, that Mija is at best a shameless opportunist and more likely than not completely full of shit. Using his newfound stature to seduce Ceca, Mija then convinces her to prostitute herself (allegedly to appease their favorite deity), only to turn around and borrow money from her for “essential ceremonial expenses.” The film has no love for the heartless industrialists, the ineffectual courts, the callous gangsters (who recruit sex workers from the local population and force young women to act as nude food platters requiring regular “refrigeration”), or the corrupt politicians, but it arguably saves its most withering scorn for the proletariat who are seen to be almost child-like in their behavior and squabbling; the invocation of the spiritual world serves as the flimsiest of pretexts to act upon their most base and homicidal instincts.

For all its intriguing ingredients, Working Class Goes to Hell is ultimately a bit of a flavorless stew of unfocused resentment and glancing social commentary; its cardinal sin, however, is that it meanders toward an all but preordained violent conclusion. Djordjevic is juggling a handful of discordant tones — including social realism, pitch-black satire, melodrama, and supernatural horror — but they don’t inform one another so much as exist as self-contained modules: jump scares standing alongside pratfalls alongside the capricious death of innocents alongside relitigating the Yugoslav Wars, and so on. In addition to this whiplash, there’s little sense of escalation to the horror or buildup to the film’s pitiless final punchline. If Working Class Goes to Hell posits that desperation and hopelessness breed gullibility, it remains unclear whether it’s even attempting to equate Satanism with all manners of organized religion, and, if so, it doesn’t put the actual legwork in. The film’s rage is as undeniable as it is universal, but it remains inchoate and scattershot.

Published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 4.