The Nothing Factory
Before we wrap our coverage of Cannes, a few words most definitely should be said for two of the strongest films—both Portuguese—at the Directors’ Fortnight and, indeed, at the festival in general. Both premiered towards the end and may have gotten lost in the dwindling energy and subpar premieres common to the exhausted final days' wind-down, but they are absolutely notable.
The Nothing Factory is the film debut of Pedro Pinho, who previously made a short feature and co-directed two documentaries, one of which with Luisa Homem, who edited this new picture, as well as co-wrote it with the production collaborative Terratreme Filmes. Partially based on a Dutch play by Judith Herzberg and inspired by an idea by Jorge Silva Melo (who wrote Manuel Mozo’s unjustly forgotten 1992 masterpiece, Xavier), the film dramatizes the dissolution of an elevator factory in Portugal, an action that sneakily comes at night when the workers discover their machines being secreted away by unknown persons.
By daylight, the company owner glad-hands the group and introduces a new head engineer and, ominously, human resources manager, who pulls employee after employee into private sessions that are revealed to be buyout conversations. The confusion, anger, palpable paranoia and personal fear of the employees inspire the first few to take the money and run, but most stick around, uniting after a few members argue to strike and reclaim the factory. The dozen or so strikers hardly remain a unified front, and arguments and distrust abound, as the cops show up, are repulsed, and the idea of self-management is floated.
Shooting in 16mm with a compositional and editing style that make the film feel like a documentary—or, in the modern parlance, feel like a hybrid film, re-staging fiction based on documentary elements—and with a set of actors who likewise successfully blur the line between reality and drama, The Nothing Factory plunges full hilt into the details and discourse of the particulars of the fading away of a single, lone factory and the congested efforts by its workers to keep their labor going and their livelihood intact. Pinho then cleverly folds in a fourth-wall breaking wild card, including in his film a voiceover and the presence of a scruffy, unnamed man who seems at once an author, a thinker, or perhaps even a director (he is played by a filmmaker, Danièle Incalcaterra) researching the end of capitalism in Europe. He discovers the strike, begins hanging around the workers, and, in a few dizzyingly audacious scenes, even directs them to perform for the very movie we're watching. Thus the inhuman plight of Europe's dying capitalism, detailed and broad, is addressed, and the very way such a plight can be explained or dramatized is questioned.
The film’s three-hour runtime gives The Nothing Factory the breadth to plunge into the nitty-gritty particulars of the workers’ conversations, coalition, fights, and concerns, scripted and shot so that the drama is not classical melodrama but rather comes from the innate emotion and tension of people struggling to figure out how to make a living and, from that, live. A bit less successful is an attempt to integrate the home life (and the past generation) of one of the workers, whose wife is feeling disconnected from her preoccupied husband, into the picture, which ruptures the focus of the canvas on the workers themselves, men and women, as they come together and part around the factory. Yet the scope of the canvas is bold indeed, at once myopic in its resolute attention to these few people in this one particular and small-scale crisis, and expansive in its direct acknowledgement of this story and its participants as a by no means rare example of the pernicious, corrosive effect of capitalism’s endless late stage on individual human beings.
Also concerned with communities and her countrymen and -women’s livelihood, albeit in a rural location and evoked in a more condensed, mythic cinematic language, is the short Farpões, baldios (“Barbs, Wasteland”), the stunning first film of Marta Mateus. Following a lineage begun by America's cine-historiographer John Ford, more directly politicized and de-commercialized by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, and re-contextualized to Portugal’s social history in revolutionary digital aesthetics by Pedro Costa, Farpões, baldios confronts us with a provincial landscape populated by a people dangerously left adrift in a country that seems on the verge of forgetting its past.
Those who find bountiful reserves of power, expression and outrage in Straub-Huillet and Costa’s works will immediately recognize the striking wide-angle photography, low framing of uncannily forceful architecture and foliage, and bold, presentational posing and declamations of actors in this film. (Costa is, in fact, thanked in the closing credits.) It is a genuine pleasure and provocation to see Costa’s work, which receives much praise but whose influence on the next generation we’re continually looking for, so continued. Thankfully escaping the orbit of masculine auteurship, the torch for a new generation is clearly and vividly lit by Mateus.
In fact, Farpões, baldios, a rural poem of faces and landscapes both fresh and asperous, actively collides two generations. In the Alentejo countryside in southern Portugal the old guard is full of memories personal and political of the struggle across the 20th century to work and live, recounting the past to one another in mournful, poetic passages and proclamations, lamenting lost work, the dead, and time’s unequivocal movement. The new generation can be found around the countryside too, but are freer, more verdurous. While the adults, old and aged, mostly seem attached to the ground they stand on—violently tossing their old farm tools aside in gestures of frustrated capitulation—the children bound across the land, stopping to listen only to move on again. In an indelible image, a young boy walks a country path backwards as a young girl joins arms with him to walk the same way facing forwards. Here is a dialectic of relations between land and people, old and young, history and the present, drawn beautifully and directly on that landscape and from the people who live there. Marta Mateus's film, as attentive to the dried land and abandoned structures of the region as to the wrinkled hands and eyes of the old and the mobile curiosity of the young, is plaintive but also light-doused, its open air images pregnant with elusory riches.