The Working Class Goes to Heaven – Blu-Ray Review

In Italy, the 1970s was a time when real revolution was in the air. Most of the West had become complacent and accepted their crappy systems, but Italian student movements and trades unions posed a serious challenge to those in power. Of course, they didn’t win in the end, especially after The PCI (Italian Communist Party) went in league with the Christian Democrats in 1976 and enacted an austerity program. This continued well into the ’80s, but the two decades from roughly 1968 to 1988 became known as “the years of lead.” The group most associated with political violence at the time were the Marxist-Leninist urban guerilla group known as The Red Brigade, although they were hardly the only gang in town.

The Working Class Goes to Heaven came out just when all of this was starting to heat up. Elio Petri, who was one of the best political directors to come out of Italy at the time, directed it. He was brilliant at merging thrillers with political messages: his masterpiece is Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion, which is a darkly humorous look at a police officer who is so powerful that he starts leaving obvious clues after killing his mistress. Petri had been a Communist, but left the PCI after the Hungarian uprising in 1956. I’m not sure exactly what he identified as politically later on, but he did direct something about Giuseppe Pinelli for Italian TV: Pinelli was an anarchist who was killed by the police, and whose murder was one of the catalysts for social and political upheaval in Italy.

Gian Maria Volonté plays Lulu Massa, who is the ideal worker for as far as business owners are concerned: he is good at his job, never complains, and is very content with his life. But then Massa gets injured, and he starts to drift into radical trade-unionist politics after initially sneering at the students who were protesting the workers’ conditions outside the factory every day.

It’s a very effective satirical look at capitalism and the conditions factory workers were facing at the time. The cinematography—especially in the factory scenes from Luigi Kuveiller—is spellbinding. Petri was the director most linked with Kuveiller, but he also shot Argento’s Deep Red, Paul Morrissey’s horror films, Billy Wilder’s Avanti! and some of Lucio Fulci’s key films.

The whole film is anchored by a powerhouse performance from Gian Maria Volonté, who is probably the most underrated Italian star of that time. He initially gained attention with turns in the first two in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy, but Volonté never took those films hugely seriously. He naturally drifted more into the Zapata Westerns, such as A Bullet for the General and Face to Face, but it was really his work with Petri and Francesco Rosi that showed his true talents. in 1972 both The Mattei Affair (probably his greatest performance) and The Working Class Goes to Heaven played Cannes, and in a rare move the films shared the Palme D’Or. Of course, Volonté won the prize for Best Actor (this wouldn’t be allowed under the festival’s rules today). He was a very committed Communist, but also played the executed anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti in the 1971 version of Sacco and Vanzetti. Reportedly, when he co-starred in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Circle Rouge he didn’t get on with Melville, because he talked too much about politics, and on the weekends would fly back to Italy to talk with his friends about… politics.

The Working Class Goes to Heaven is a film that’s very much of its time and country of origin, but it’s also a film to reckon with, because its message is still as relevant and universal as it was in 1972.

Thanks to Radiance Films, we now have the film in a pristine new print, when previously it was only available on poor-quality bootlegs or VHS rip-offs on YouTube. The Blu-Ray contains a host of archival interviews with Petri, Volonté and co-star Corrado Solari. Alex Cox, naturally, does a appreciation of both Volonté and the film—I first heard about The Mattei Affair because Cox championed it, and he does some of that here. Film scholar Matthew Kowalski contributes a video essay on Petri, his films and politics. There is also a unique making-of, which is told by the staff of the factory where they shot the film and the film’s extras and crew. The booklet contains new writing from critics Eugenio Renzi and Roberto Curti, along with archival writing and reviews.

★★★★½

Ian Schultz

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