“Lulu the Tool” is no more descriptive a title for Elio Petri’s Italian social drama that opened yesterday at the D. W. Griffith Cinema than “La Classe Operaia Va in Paradiso” (“The Working Class Goes to Heaven”), the title under which it shared (with “The Mattei Affair”) the grand prize of the 1972 Cannes Film Festival. But if neither tag is memorable, there is little doubt that the director-writer, whose convictions are Communist, has projected a cynical view of the worker’s lot that is both fascinating and sobering.
Mr. Petri, who scored with his 1970 dissection of police authority in “Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion,” has again joined Ugo Pirro in writing the script. With Gian Maria Volonte, the top cop in “Investigation,” he points up the Kafkalike condition of “Lulu.”
As a productive, fairly happy, if griping, hand in a northern Italian factory, Lulu, his hero, appears to have licked the stultifying effects of the assembly line by sticking to his lathe, thinking carnally about a well-endowed fellow worker, his incentive pay and his family. But there are forces he can’t control. Include among these a complaining wife (Mariangela Melato) and the pleasures of the bed and a young son he is too work-weary to enjoy: a factory accident that costs him a finger, and, above all, a strike and the confusing dialectics of student activists and union leaders.
Mr. Petri, who called his film “propaganda for the working class” at Cannes, hews to that hard line. His activists are weakly defensive when confronted by an unemployed Lulu, his unionists seem to be self-serving, and a once-tough Lulu is terrified by the lucid flashes of doom prophesied by an elderly mental patient, gently played by Salvo Randone, who has been wrecked by the assembly line.
If our hero gets his chance for that fling (in his car) with that shapely virgin coworker he’s been ogling, it’s a faintly comic and labored joust that’s sadly disappointing for both. And, though the strike is won, it is strongly implied that the victory for Lulu, as the tool of capitalism, unions and activists, is unrewarding.
The focus, of course, is largely on Mr. Volonte, as the harried Lulu amid a company of unfamiliar players who seem to be at home in the factory and on the picket line. It is a varied, naturalistic and sensitive portrayal of a simple and vigorous man buffeted, frightened, anguished and perplexed by suddenly changing circumstances in his once comfortable bailiwick of the workers’ world.
“Lulu the Tool” may not be an entirely original concept, since “Coup Pour Coup” (“Blow for Blow”), the 1971 French feature shown here in March, also illustrated a case against industrial injustice. “Lulu the Tool,” of course, delivers the director’s avowed “propaganda” forcefully, as the film’s English subtitles make clear. But, more important, he has fashioned a swiftly moving, human and often disturbing drama.