Two elderly divorcees slave away for next to nothing in “Workers,” the first fiction feature of Mexican-Salvadorian helmer Jose Luis Valle Gonzalez (“The Pope’s Miracle”). Beautifully composed and dryly humorous pic chronicles the formerly connected lives of a lightbulb-factory janitor, who doesn’t have the right papers to retire, and a domestic servant, whose rich patrona dies and leaves everything to a spoiled pet. Oddball observational story, which also works as a biting commentary on near-anonymous employees, was named best local pic at the Guadalajara fest and will extensively work the fest and niche circuits.
Set in the sprawling metropolis of Tijuana, “Workers” opens with an elaborately choreographed shot that starts on the waves of the Pacific before revealing the fence that marks the border between the U.S. and Mexico on the beach. The camera finally pulls back to reveal that all this is being observed by a middle-aged man (Jesus Padilla) whom auds will later come to know as Rafael.
But Gonzalez is in no hurry to introduce his characters, instead taking his time to simply witness the day-to-day reality of not only his protags, but other Tijuaneros as well. The film’s most striking example of the latter is a lengthy fixed shot of a random city street at dusk, as people pass by a barbershop and a girls club; some are going to work, others are leaving. In a good example of the pic’s often caustic humor, someone amends a piece of graffiti that reads “Juana I Love You” with the update “Not Anymore.”
What this apparently throwaway shot seems to suggest is that it pays to carefully examine images that at first seem to contain little of narrative value. The life of Rafael, who hopes to retire soon but is told he can’t because he’s got the wrong papers (he’s a foreigner from El Salvador, like the helmer), certainly doesn’t seem particularly extraordinary, though it does emerge that Rafa is someone who prides himself on a job well done — and his pride, if hurt, could lead to far-reaching consequences.
The film’s second lead, seen in alternating scenes, is Rafael’s ex-wife, Lidia (Susana Salazar), who works as a maid. It slowly becomes clear that the couple divorced after their son died at age 3, and they haven’t spoken much since. Lidia also leads a rather lonely life, looking after her demanding boss (Vera Talaia), who is in poor health and whose main concern is the well-being of her beyond-spoiled pet dog, Princess.
Like her former hubby, Lidia derives a great deal of pride from her job. But when her employer finally dies and leaves everything to Princess, something snaps in Lidia; slaving away for a dog-obsessed rich woman is one thing, but a canine millionaire quite another.
By continuously weaving small, surreal details into a narrative that’s otherwise focused on extremely quotidian details, Gonzalez underlines the absurd lives of these hard-working protagonists, who clearly embody the faceless working masses. They come from simple backgrounds and, perhaps unfairly, expect life to be fair, though it rarely is.
This beautifully conceived and impeccably acted downer-with-humor not only benefits from cinematographer Cesar Gutierrez Miranda’s masterful sense of composition but also Oscar Figueroa’s precision editing, which allows the material to breathe in the early going before tightening its grip on the dual-track narrative as the events slowly start to spiral out of control.
Reviewed at Guadalajara Film Festival (Premio Mezcal — competing), March 3, 2013. (In Berlin Film Festival — Panorama.) Running time: 120 MIN.
A Zensky Cine production in association with Imcine-Foprocine, Cuec, Autentika Films. (International sales: MPM Films, Paris.) Produced by Jose Luis Valle Gonzalez. Executive producer, Elsa Reyes. Co-producer, Benito Juarez.
Directed, written by Jose Luis Valle Gonzalez. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Cesar Gutierrez Miranda; editor, Oscar Figueroa; production designer, Linda Naize Ruiz Herrera; art director, Gabriela Santo del Olmo; costume designer, Galaxia Bautista; sound, Pablo Tamez; sound designer, Jose Miguel Enriquez; assistant director, Jonathan Hernandez.
With: Susana Salazar, Jesus Padilla, Vera Talaia, Barbara Perrin Rivemar, Sergio Limon, Adolfo Madera, Giancarlo Ruiz, Rey Castro.