– Michele Riondino’s brilliant and powerful debut depicts the first ever reported case of workplace bullying in Italy at Ilva’s lethal steelworks in Taranto
Michele Riondino en Palazzina LAF
For his directorial debut, Apulian actor Michele Riondino has chosen a (true) story set in the world of work which is part of a wider drama which unfolded in Taranto’s Ilva plant, the “monstrous” steelworks which caused thousands of cases of lung cancer between 1993 and 2021, not to mention death from asbestos exposure. In addition to testifying to a ruthless form of capitalism, the temporary receiverships, the closure of the blast furnaces, the subsequent legal proceedings and redevelopment resulted in a clash between two rights: “the right to good health for the city’s inhabitants and the right to work for those employed by the plant”, as Argentine director Victor Cruz explains, having authored a docufilm on the Ilva affair in 2021.
With Palazzina LAF, screening in Rome Film Fest’s Grand Public section, Riondino tells the tale of what was probably the first ever case of large-scale workplace bullying reported in Italy, which set a precedent in national employment law. The titular building actually refers to the dilapidated office to which anyone who refused to bend to the company’s “reorganisation” was relegated: engineers and other qualified staff who refused to give in to workplace blackmail and wouldn’t accept demotion. The film opens in 1997 when the firm has only just been privatised and the leadership team are overseeing a ruthless “reorganisation of their productive structure”. Palazzina LAF is a land of limbo where everyone is left hanging, a prison which destroys people psychologically. In addition to directing the film, Riondino also carved out the lead role for himself – and a very wise choice it was too – playing Caterino La Manna, a cleaner responsible for cleaning the plant’s battery coils, a hellish job which damages the lungs. The personnel manager, played by Elio Germano in his most devious role yet, forces him to become a spy for the company: he must report back on any “conspiracies” between the union representative (Fulvio Pepe) and all the others who have been sentenced to social death. In exchange, he’ll receive a promotion and a company car. Caterino soon infiltrates Palazzina LAF as the only member of the working classes, caught between libidinal energy and the death drive; a character who would please Cynthia Cruz, who wrote The Melancholia of Class.
Riondino is playing on home turf here: Taranto is his hometown, his father worked at Ilva, and the screenplay which he wrote alongside the well-trained Maurizio Braucci is based upon Fumo sulla città, a book which Alessandro Leogrande wrote as a “warning” for the entire country. The director deftly includes elements of the grotesque into the drama, helped by the sardonic Apulian dialect and Theo Teardo’s brass band soundtrack which pays tribute to Morricone. Riondino represents the golden age of Italian cinema – a time of civil engagement and bitter comedy – very well, so much so that his “high” model appears to be Lulù, the overworked employee loved by his bosses and played by Gian Maria Volontè in Elio Petri’s The Working Class Goes to Heaven (awarded Cannes’ Grand Prize in 1972). The protagonist of Palazzina LAF becomes aware of his own informer-slave condition but he doesn’t want to admit it to himself or anyone else. The scene where he expresses his sense of Catholic guilt while dreaming of Taranto’s spectacular Holy Week procession with the statue of Christ on the crucifix which a Caterino-Judas kisses, is particularly impressive. Director of photography Claudio Cofrancesco also deserves a mention for successfully reproducing the light of religious illuminations. In all, Riondino’s is a brilliant and powerful directorial debut of a kind we rarely see, and we hope we get to see his talent confirmed in future films.
(Translated from Italian)