Modern Times in An Anarchist Suit

in 70th Cannes International Film Festival

by Rodrigo Fonseca

One sentence, spoken by a metal worker, symbolizes the ethical, political and aesthetic discussion that makes A Fábrica de Nada (The Factory of Nothing) a film essential to the understanding of our time:

“The world today is no longer divided between Right and Left. The issue today involves another division. On one side are the people who submit to the Power. On the other side are the people who are willing to give up the cell phone, the trips to the Moon, the Tupperwares”.

In this sentence, we find the tone of this cinematic tour de force through the paths of moral fable, documentary, musical, sociological essay… In this sentence, we find the tone of a certain – and more luminous – portion of the Portuguese cinema d’auteur, to which are associated directors such as Pedro Costa (Cavalo Dinheiro), Teresa Villaverde (Colo) and Miguel Gomes (As 1001 Noites): a lineage that departs from the vertigo of the real to construct an imagistic chronicle of years of crisis in Europe – and elsewhere. Economic and symbolic crisis. Due to its small industry, with films that never surpass the amount of 200,000 tickets sold, Portugal is a place for subversion of the narrative conventions. Portugal is the land of a non-comfortable cinema.

According to the studies of the cultural anthropologist David Bordwell, there is a type of cinema, which we call Second Narrative Field, whose base is “the debate”, that is, its ethos, as art, concentrates not in the testimony of a journey (The so-called hero crossing), but rather in the political discussion that the plot and the language raise. So Portugal is the land of Second Field and its controversial forms of expression. That’s the reason why each gesture in A Fábrica de Nada is a political gesture: in the final 40 minutes of this almost-three- hour-long experience, the workers start to sing. We are in a context of work, of industry. In the logic of Aesop’s fables, there would be a land of ants there. But in the corner, the ant turns into a cicada, as a form of retaliation to Capitalism. The same Capitalism that, in the film, is responsible for the ruin of the harmony of several workers.

The film starts with a suspicious act of moral downsizing. One night, a group of workers realizes that the administration is stealing machines and raw materials from their own factory. As they organize to survey the equipment and block the relocation of the production, they are forced to stand in their posts with no work to be done, as a form of retaliation, while the negotiations for a general lay off go on. The pressure leads to a general breakdown of the workers along the collapse of the world around them. The breakdown is not a simple strike. The breakdown turns the factory into a stage for all kinds of absurd acts, all kinds of subversive acts, like a singing chorus or the production of a fantasy musical film that, according to one of the workers, “will please the French only.” It’s Chaplin’s Modern Times in an anarchist suit.

Each of these “absurd acts” is a form of resistance. But, in the background, we understand all the personal conflicts of the main characters. A good example is the worker who is also a rock singer (José Smith Vargas) and faces a love crisis in his relationship with his girlfried. He – like many others – is not only a worker fighting for his rights. He is a human being. The main contribution of Pedro Pinho’s film to the Second Field is is to remind us that every political struggle is always fueled by human needs and fragilities.

For all these reasons, A Fábrica de Nada is an evocative activist film that blows away the boundaries between reality, fiction, theater and sociological discourse leading to an unsettling and provocative cinematic experience.

Edited by Alissa Simon