In times of crisis, suggests a character in “The Nothing Factory,” there are various possible responses: You can shoot a gun or form a community garden. Or in Portuguese documentary director Pedro Pinho’s case, you can make your narrative debut, an occasionally inspired, but often trying three-hour-long, genre-hopping patchwork of social-realist cinema. While such a span feels like a respectful reflection of the complexity of the issues it explores, it also allows the film to come into and out of focus so often that it dulls engagement long before an unexpected musical number in the last half-hour briefly perks it up again.
Loosely inspired by an actual experiment in self-management by the employees of Portuguese elevator manufacturer Otis, the film borrows a lot of its textural details from real life. Here the factory also makes elevators, and is similarly threatened by a combination of mechanization and economic instability. Pinho populates his cast with non-professional actors, many of whom are factory workers. It’s a tactic that pays dividends in the authentic naturalism of the performances, though the film is far less concerned with creating emotional attachments to these characters than with presenting them en masse as a chorus of working-man disgruntlement, exploitation and despair. Even Ze (José Smith Vargas) the machinist whose home life with his wife and young child is sketched out, and includes a few surprisingly candid sex scenes, becomes less an individual protagonist and more a blank-slate representative of class, life stage and Everyman decency.
Shot on pleasingly grainy 16mm, which gives the contemporary story a slightly antiqued texture, things begin strongly. The workers have been alerted to the removal of key equipment from the factory in the dead of night, and gather there to salvage what they can. Sure enough, in the following days their fears are realized as their corporate bosses, hiding behind a smokescreen of doublespeak and external middlemen, announce the closure of the facility. The dilemma that ensues for the workers is between standing together in solidarity (making for an eloquent sequence on the silent factory floor with all at their stations, doing nothing) or accepting the severance packages offered. In the dissection of the way a corporate hierarchy can seek to undermine collective resolve, there’s a punchy, 90-minute allegory within “The Nothing Factory,” although that film has already more or less been made, by Italian director Michel Placido in last year’s “7 Minutes.”
Pinho’s ambitions here are much broader. The disembodied voice that ponders the nature of capitalism and the decline of the European economy since the 2008 collapse is revealed to belong to Daniele (Daniele Incalcaterra), a socially engaged filmmaker who believes he may have found his next subject in this failing factory, but who also takes a hands-on approach to agitating for a worker takeover of the facility’s management. Initially, Daniele’s ambivalence is compelling, with Pinho appearing quasi-critical of the character’s approach, showing how Daniele’s interest in the workers is not compassion but a detached impulse toward social experimentation. But the locus of that observation is lost in an unforgivably lengthy digression, shot in stifling, un-dynamic closeups, of Daniele and a group of fellow thinkers — like the workers, largely male — around a dinner table talking through contrasting socioeconomic theories.
In fact, the character of Daniele feels like the film’s Achilles heel: His presence as the hectoring, didactic activist-filmmaker at first promises to add a layer of self-referential meta-playfulness to Pinho’s drama, but ultimately bogs it down in unnecessarily dense speechifying and muddy motivations. And it points to a lack of dramatic discipline on Pinho’s part — as though he were not confident enough of being able to say all he needs through character and action, and so has a proxy step in to literally say it all in dialogue, or more often, excitably verbose monologue.
And more’s the pity, because the moments of cinematic idiosyncrasy are the most provocative. Ze’s trip to talk with his father, which ends with the old man digging up a buried cache of guns and advocating armed class struggle is a case in point, as are the more overtly surreal moments involving ostriches and that sudden musical number that breaks out on the factory floor and resembles a recently unearthed Dexy’s Midnight Runners video.
At these times, Pinho comes closest to the gold standard set by his countryman Miguel Gomes in the sprawling, epic “Arabian Nights.” That film, though twice as long, feels far more focused and engaging than “The Nothing Factory,” where, though the intentions are pure, the combination of social-realist austerity and cinematic exuberance never coheres. It remains a granola-textured admixture to the end, which makes it a difficult sell. Not, perhaps, to festival audiences prepped for demandingly discursive fare, but to anyone outside those rarefied confines — including the very demographics that Pinho, in the abstract, is championing here.