Among the most insidious, narcotizing illusions that the powerful can peddle to the less empowered is the suggestion that choice equals freedom — that as long as we have the option to decide between at least two alternatives, we are somehow the masters of our own destinies. It’s a notion that underpins the very idea of democracy, not to mention consumerism, in which one’s definitive preference of Coke over Pepsi, or one’s tribal adherence to Adidas over Nike, goes a long way toward obscuring the nagging suspicion that we might be better off without carbonated cola drinks or luxury sports brands in our lives at all.
This may seem like a distant mental space in which to end up after watching Michele Placido’s Italian-language “7 Minutes,” which is based on a true story and follows one fraught afternoon in the lives of 11 female workers’ representatives in a textile factory undergoing a takeover. But there is an alchemical righteous anger pumping through the film’s veins that transforms its deceptively simple premise, its unglamorous locations and densely talky approach into the stuff of resonant, compelling, timely filmmaking, and provokes such parallels. An unapologetically political parable, it’s also an investigation into group dynamics, and a brisk education in labor vs. capital. This is macroeconomics in microcosm.
Playing out as a confident amalgam of the Dardenne brothers’ “Two Days One Night” and Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men,” this is Placido’s 12th feature as director (the venerable actor also takes a small role), and his experience shows in the strong performances he elicits from his almost-all-female cast, which includes actresses of little prior experience rubbing shoulders with veterans like Ottavia Piccolo and perennial ingenues like Clémence Poésy, as well as in his unfussy shooting style. Placido’s approach needs to be clean, because there’s a tremendous amount going on even beyond the story in the foreground, as buzzing lines of ideology, loyalty, history, pettiness, and prejudice snap and crackle between the disparate women like currents of electricity.
The event that gathers them all together is the arrival of the plant’s new owner (a wonderfully regal, very faintly rancid turn from Anne Consigny, recently seen in Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle”) for a discussion with the outgoing board members concerning the plant’s future. Terrified the factory will close and they’ll lose their livelihoods, the workers gather outside the gates, alongside reporters and TV crews. Meanwhile the women of the workers’ council bicker and spar in the break room while their spokesperson Bianca (a soulful Piccolo) sits in on the meeting where the plant’s fate is being decided. Having been condescended to, and finally banished to a farther room with a plate of food rather than being asked to have lunch with the rest of them (class division made tacitly manifest), she gets to bring the “deal” — take it or leave it — down to her fellow council members. The plant will not close. There will be no layoffs. All the new owners ask is that each individual worker give up seven minutes of their break each day. Just seven minutes! It seems too good to be true, and amid the exclamations of delight and relief Bianca’s expression is troubled. The rest of the film concerns her efforts to get the other women to think beyond their initial grateful response, of which she is justly wary, if for no other reason than it’s so very clearly what the management wants and expects.
But this is not simply “11 Angry Women.” Where Henry Fonda held a man’s life in his hands in Lumet’s touchstone jury-room thriller, here the stakes are different, not higher so much as broader, subtler, and more far-reaching (one of the women even starts to consider their deliberations in the light of the whole country and of future generations). And most crucially there is not an unequivocal right thing to do — there is no “acquitting an innocent man” here. Because what seems at first like a sweetheart deal and a very reasonable request, gets cast in a different light when they realize that seven minutes daily off everyone’s break amounts to 900 additional hours every month, free of charge to the company. Perhaps getting that work for free will allow management to make layoffs despite their promises? Perhaps it’s the first of the thousand cuts by which they will die? Or perhaps it’s the 999th?
The film is far from flawless, and while it sits among its illustrious company (to which you could also add Stéphane Brizé’s terrific “The Measure of a Man”) in terms of ambition and intention, it doesn’t quite rival them in execution. In such a pressure-cooker swirl of conflict and conversation, it’s no surprise there are moments that verge on the histrionic, and times when the script lands on the nose, or when a character is asked to effect too quick an about-face in mood to feel quite real. But the choral effect is far greater than the sum of the individual parts, and the balancing act between keeping the women relatably human and making them mouthpieces for certain ideologies or values is largely achieved. It’s gripping, for such an apparently unsexy subject, and surprisingly cinematic (though Arnaldo Catinari’s photography is understated), despite the potential for staginess, and that is largely because of the faith that Placido has in this small story of hard-won wisdom and pragmatic heroism to resonate wherever there is worker exploitation, which is almost everywhere there are workers. “It’s not the seven minutes, it’s what the seven minutes represent,” insists Bianca throughout, and what they represent in Placido’s taut and convincing film is an erosion — not just of the workers’ rights, but of their dignity, their future bargaining power and, saddest of all, the precious resource that is their solidarity.