‘Now we’ll experiment by putting in some trash, but we could comfortably use human or animal excrement.’
An engineer has perfected a device that will automate all industries and eliminate the need for a human workforce. He is kidnapped, brainwashed and set free to wander the streets with no memories or identity…
Curious science-fiction piece from Italian writer-director Silvano Agosti that tells a story of seismic societal change. Unfortunately, it’s delivered in such a wilfully obscure and oblique manner as to leave any potential audience indifferent and frustrated.
Engineer N.P. (Francisco Rabal) heads up GIAR, the ‘Industrial Group of Reunited Enterprises’ and he declares an end to the world of work. His new machines will completely eliminate the need for manual labour. The workers will be freed from their toils and given a share of the incalculable profits that his new innovations will bring. His announcement means a round of TV interviews and meetings with very important people, including leaders of the priesthood. Unfortunately for Rabal, these prove to be thugs in disguise who kidnap and brainwash him, erasing all his memories.
Now it might reasonably be assumed that these villains are representatives of the captains of industry, who are desperate to retain the status quo. And that might be so, but we never find out. The film is not big on specifics. In another odd development, he’s left on his own and freed by a man in a raincoat. After some sleeping rough and dumpster diving, he is then recaptured (by the same people?) and forced to sign over all his work to them (apparently he can still remember his signature!)
While incarcerated, Rabal is declared a fatality in the plane crash that kills his children and their nanny. His wife Ingrid Thulin (‘Wild Strawberries’ (1957) and several other films by Ingmar Bergman) attends his funeral, which is the kind of big-budgeted affair generally reserved for heads of state. After that, his captors let the speechless Rabal go, and eventually, he gets taken in by Irene Papas (‘The Guns of Navarone’ (1960)) and her family in the poor part of town. His original reforms are pushed through, and they are all relocated to specially constructed housing zones where no-one has to work, and everyone lives on government handouts.
Ok, where to begin? The film is not big on dialogue and, although a lack of exposition can sometimes be refreshing, some information is required to keep an audience on board. For a start, how is Rabal’s perfect new society supposed to work on an economic level? All we see of his ‘machines’ and ‘process’ is some guff about recycling, and the only evidence we see of societal change is that Papas’ family move to a nicer neighbourhood and have nicer things. There are some scenes of mass street protests, but the point of these is never really explained, although Agosti probably should get credit for some fine guerilla filmmaking here. Sure, a few figures in the foreground of certain shots are holding up banners with messages relevant to the film but, given the massive scale of the crowds involved, these are highly likely to have been real political marches with a few members of the director’s crew photobombing the frame.
There are also so much more basic storytelling issues. Rabal is supposed to be dead, so why would his captors release him back into the world? Why not just kill him for real? Ok, he doesn’t remember who he is, but isn’t someone going to recognise a world-famous man who has appeared regularly on TV and had a funeral attended by hundreds? Apparently not. Also, why do all that to him in the first place? His reforms come to pass anyway.
And now we come to the ending. This is a potential spoiler (and I say ‘potential’ because the climax is deliberately ambiguous), but if you don’t want my interpretation of what the ending may mean then best stop reading now.
The brief demonstration of Rabal’s process in the early part of the film focuses on a ‘Butterfiy’ device. This seems to be a method where organic material can be extracted from any kind of garbage and turned into food. It’s recycling to the ultimate; hell, one boffin even remarks that human and animal excrement can be used. So, taking ‘Soylent Green’ (1973) to another level, then? Soylent Brown, perhaps? If you’re at all familiar with the 1973 big-budget Hollywood movie starring Charlton Heston and Edward G Robinson, then you’ll know where I’m going with this.
Having said that, it’s just a possible interpretation of the final scenes, and I can find no evidence that there was any litigation filed by the makers of this film with MGM over their far more famous production. Yes, that film was based on a novel (the superb ‘Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison) but the twist ending was not in the source material. In fact, by all accounts, Harrison hated it.
This is an odd film. Events proceed in a very standard linear fashion, and it is always clear what is happening on screen, it just doesn’t make logical sense in the context of the wider story.
There are some interesting themes here, but there’s never any real opportunity to engage with the film.