Our changing world of work is an opportunity for economic, social and sociological analysis. However, cinema invariably engages in cultural analysis as well. And it differs from the approach of any other analysis. In late December 2021, nearly twenty years after Mondays in the Sun, acclaimed Hollywood actor Javier Bardem and director Fernando León de Aranoa reunited to address the world of work through the film The Good Boss: This time, however, they’re no longer looking from the workers’ point of view, but from the other side of the fence, through the eyes of the ‘boss’.
A good film striking up the topic of human relations at work
“Nothing in the film escapes the control of a script that is flawless and crafted in chapters. From one Monday to the following Monday, the workweek confronts each character with his or her own private crisis and obligations, duties, and moral commitments”, explains Andrea Chimento, film critic, film lecturer and founder of Longtake. Starring Bardem, who never once leaves the scene, each character has a personal role to play in a mosaic in which blackmailers are blackmailed, betrayers are betrayed and the winners, on a professional and human level, are actually losers who have disguised their defeat”.
A film job
The entire hour and fifteen minutes of The Good Boss, even though described as only ‘comedy’, “convey truly dark comedy that forces us to look at the everyday world of work, including our own. Where there are no caricatures – typical of comedy – but characters from real dramas that compel us to look through the lens of the camera and ‘a’ particular context, the world of work in its entirety. The final scene is disarming and thought provoking”, adds Andrea Chimento. The inhumanity of work dynamics emerges in The Good Boss. Drawing from the same critical tools of social enquiry that powerfully characterise the entire filmography of British director Ken Loach, right up to the more desecrating and grotesque films such as Full Monty or the Italian trilogy Smetto quando voglio (I Can Quit Whenever I Want), a picaresque epic of a group of Roman university researchers who become drug producers and dealers to escape poverty. The theme of work, non-work or even precarious work, is tied to the rationale used by Fernando León de Aranoa himself to describe the internship, which affects everyone. Cinema possesses this powerful virtue of being able to bring hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people together for one film and, as they leave the theatre or put down their computer at home, they question themselves.
Cinema makes us laugh at our real distortions. And it makes us think
“While work-related themes are often at the centre of cinematic discussions, the approach nevertheless differs. However, the archetype remains Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936)”, analyses Chimento, in his ‘version’ of a film history teacher. The film tells the story of the worker Little Tramp, whose job is to tighten bolts on the assembly line, with repetitive gestures, inhuman and alienating rhythms that generate in the protagonist obsessions and hallucinations, which reach their climax when the unfortunate man is even deprived of his lunch break and used as a guinea pig to experiment with the automatic feeding machine, which should allow him to eat without interruptions”. Chaplin, with solutions that wring more than a few laughs out of that tragicomic black and white, deals with the fascinating and controversial relationship between man and progress, recounting the dark side of capitalism, poverty, exploitation and unemployment.
You can laugh, but always with a bitter taste in your mouth, not unlike watching Lars von Trier’s The Boss of It All (2006). We laugh, but with the sadistic grin of the owner of an IT company who has decided to sell, but he has invented a fake boss, behind whom he can hide in case of unpopular decisions. Such as closing down.
“Such bitterness also lingers on the palate in Paolo Virzì’s film Your Whole Life Ahead of You (2008), a comedy addressing precarious employment in Italy, the anxieties, aspirations and daily problems of a young philosophy graduate looking for work”
Work and women. Stories of fights made immortal by films
If the struggle for recognition of rights at work is tough, for some it is even tougher: Women, the social group most affected by the working consequences of the pandemic in Italy and the world, face seemingly insurmountable obstacles on a daily basis, from the ‘glass ceiling’ that hinders their careers to unequal salaries and the drama of harassment. A history of battles that stretches back a long way: In 1968, 187 women workers at the Ford factory in Dagenham went on strike and marked the first all-female demonstration against wage and other discrimination that had become untenable. Their struggle is the focus of We Want Sex (2010): Nigel Cole’s film, starring Sally Hawkins and Rosamund Pike, successfully recounts this momentous reclamation while making us smile and reflect.
The cinema of Ken Loach, a looking glass of work
Returning to The Good Boss, there is a mixture of the harshness of the social subtext and a lightness of narrative, which should never be mistaken for superficiality. Fernando Leòn de Aranoa shifts the focus from the disruption of corporate tranquillity due to recent serial crises and relocations to a very localised and traditional, family-run business. And a successful one at that. Blanco, played by Javier Bardem, tends to confuse the social responsibility of the entrepreneur, being one of the biggest employers in the place, with the arbitrary whim of the tyrant in his kingdom. Every day he puts on a performance that resembles the previous one, in which the performers get into their characters, hiding with increasing difficulty what is really going on behind the gates. “Behind the gates of a shipyard is the working environment of the first film by the foremost interpreter of the analysis of the world of work within a film, Ken Loach”, continues Andrea Chimento. “In Riff-Raff (1991) and in general in the filmography of this British director, stories are told about the United Kingdom, but their geographical location is not limiting: On the contrary, British soil becomes a metonym for universal work, which is the same (or even worse) in many other states. Riff-Raff, which won the Fipresci Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is the story of a group of workers on a construction site in Edinburgh: they are the proletarians busy building houses for the rich, houses they themselves will never live in”. Loach is an interpreter of the film criticising the alienating deviations of modern work: particularly exemplary films include I, Daniel Blake (2016) and Sorry We Missed You (2019).
The intangible effects of films on the world of work
“If Ken Loach recounts the repercussions of work on domestic life and personal affections, he does so in a seemingly militant way through the camera”,
adds the Director of Longtake, “to represent the drama of work with the political gesture of staging it, as has been the case for over half a century, in fact alleviating its suffering through the catharsis of cinema”.
So those problems of just a few, and of many, are shared by everyone. Laughing, smiling bitterly, but above all reflecting, becoming aware and even indignant, fighting and opposing one or more of the distortions that the films give us back. Incredibly real in their fiction. This is also a function of cinema. And, just like work, it ennobles us. Thoughts certainly, actions potentially.