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TORONTO 2023 Midnight Madness

Review: Working Class Goes to Hell


- Maverick Serbian director Mladen Djordjević offers another infernal vision of his country's devastated society

Review: Working Class Goes to Hell
l-r: Tomislav Trifunović, Olivera Viktorović and Stephan Shterev in Working Class Goes to Hell

Serbian director Mladen Djordjević continues his uncompromising, wildly imaginative, transgressive and profoundly dark approach with his new film, Working Class Goes to Hell [+see also:
interview: Mladen Djordjević
film profile
, which has just world-premiered in Toronto's Midnight Madness.

As always, Djordjević is interested in people on the margins. This time around, it is a group of former workers whose family members died in a factory fire five years ago in this small, unnamed Serbian town – the accents point to the south-east of the country, known for its own brand of black magic. Led by the fearless Ceca (Tamara Krcunović), they form an association demanding justice from the ruling trinity consisting of the mayor, the factory owner and the local crime boss. Arrogantly discarding all accusations and conveniently avoiding prosecution, they are about to open an incineration plant and a hotel, which everybody knows will really be a brothel.

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At the same time, Miya (Leon Lučev) returns from Belgrade after 13 years and a stint in prison. Joining this rag-tag group of characters, played by established actors such as Ivan Djordjević and Mirsad Tuka, and including excellent bit players like Szilvia Krizsan and Olivera Viktorović, alongside an assortment of non-professionals, Miya reveals his newly acquired talents: tarot reading and a lead-melting ritual. As the trust and desperation of these people who cross themselves every five minutes and all go to church grow, Miya introduces his medium abilities. After a first session is decidedly successful, we learn that the one they have to thank is the "bearer of light, the prince unjustly banished from heaven".

Miya and Ceca start a relationship, which will include chilling moments such as eating raw liver during sex inside a pentagram symbol, and the group grows bolder, now gearing up for revenge. In the meantime, we meet Danica (Lidija Kordić), a young woman who stopped talking after her mother died in the fire. She visits a deserted worker's holiday resort on the hill above the town, and at one point she discovers a dead man in its basement, who later appears at the local bar. Played by Montenegrin veteran Momo Pićurić, he seems to have supernatural abilities of his own.

Djordjević fills his film with signifiers of the devastated Serbian society. Politicians, criminals and the Orthodox Church rob, steal and kill while regular people are entranced by violent reality shows. The local bar owner pimps out a couple of prostitutes whose shiny dresses stand in stark contrast with the dusty roads and decrepit houses. There are religious icons everywhere, while composer Kalin Nikolov's terrifying score combines Balkan instruments such as the one-stringed gusle with accordion and strings, the wailing of professional mourners and a smattering of religious choral pieces.

It is often a chaotic film, but narratively, it is mostly coherent. Dušan Grubin's camera usually captures a bunch of characters in the same frame, such as when they clumsily chase a chicken they want to sacrifice around a red-lit room – this lighting is intense to the point that it feels like most of the film is tinted with red, even though it's just a couple of key scenes. Lazar Predojev's editing keeps the 127-minute film together by intertwining these scenes with more intimate segments and several well-positioned wide shots. Still, the feature almost bursts through its seams in its final, dark and violent sequence in the surreal brothel that brings to mind the ending of Djordjević's The Life and Death of a Porno Gang

Among the cast, Krcunović plays against type with all-out dedication, while Lučev both emanates an otherworldly darkness and implies a very earthly corruption of his character.

Working Class Goes to Hell is a co-production between Serbia's Sense Production, Banda and Cinnamon Film, Bulgaria's Agitprop, Greece's Homemade Films, Montenegro's Adriatic Western, Croatia's Kinorama, and Romania's Tangaj Production. Patra Spanou has the international rights.

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