Workforce review: a stark parable of building injustice

Tyrants can be toppled but tyranny is a more obdurate proposition in David Zonana’s beady drama of a construction worker occupying the luxury villa he has built.

☞  Workforce premiered in the UK at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival

Naomi Obeng

Workforce (2019)

There’s a certain quiet, restrained type of cinema that asks the audience to work at it, and while Workforce is a languid static-cam type of affair, the restraint only works in favour of its lucid, intriguing tale of moral corruption and socialism gone wrong in Mexico City.

Exposing a system that has been silently broken for decades, if not centuries, director David Zonana focuses on a group of underpaid construction workers building a vast luxury villa for a rich client who’ll live in it alone. Protagonist Francisco is played meekly – with the sinister aloofness, though not the wordiness, of Nightcrawler’s Leo Bloom – by Luis Alberti, the only professional actor among a cast of real builders. He must contend with the sudden accidental death of his brother on the site, and an employer who refuses to pay compensation to his brother’s pregnant widow. “No te preocupes” – don’t worry – his boss tells him.

Understandably, he has had enough. But rebellion for Francisco happens in incremental stages of transgression. He climbs into the house at night. Sleeps on the floor. Then on the bed. Tearing the plastic off a brand new sofa, he uses his hands to break into the the life of the house’s owner (who was hardly paying fairly for the work of those hands).

In the house, Francisco slips into a newfound confidence and dignity. It seems almost natural that, when the owner dies, Francisco invites his colleagues to live in the place they’ve all built, bringing their children and parents with them – as though it’s their right to live there, and as though it’s Francisco’s right to invite them.

A bleak comment on capitalism’s effect on human psychology, and on Mexico’s startling inequalities (over half the population live in poverty, while millionaires control over 20 per cent of the country’s GDP), Workforce is also a comment on masculine ideals. Just as he had silently watched the owner of the house do, Francisco parades women into his bedroom, wearing the same black leather jacket. Having claimed a huge step-up from the rain-flooded one-room flat he used to call home, he aspires to materialism and an inherent machismo, painting himself as patriarch.

Long static takes serves to fracture causes from consequences. This style later concedes to sparing slow zooms out, telegraphing wider repercussions to come. The socialist dream doesn’t last long, and while, in this house, the patriarchal role seems essential, its inhabitant is replaceable.

Zonana has directed a grippingly precise first feature. The house, reminiscent of the modernist dream home in Joanna Hogg’s Exhibition, is a vector and a cage, where hopes are formed and dashed. The biggest marvel in Workforce is undoubtedly the intricate exploration of morality – examining how power curdles the hope of social mobility into conflict and mistrust. Zonana deftly reminds us that people are works in progress, and inside a system stacked against them, those making the best of their difficult situation can easily lead themselves astray.

It’s a convincing and chilling illustration of human corruptibility – of how quickly an individual, given money and influence, can perpetuate the injustices that they were once subjected to.

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