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‘Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World’ Review: Radu Jude’s Brilliantly Bizarre Work-Culture Satire Won’t Quit (But Maybe You Should)

Nobody can be both the magnifying glass and the ant burning up under its glare. Nobody, that is, except shaggy Romanian shaman Radu Jude who, with his Locarno competition entry “Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World,” follows up 2021’s Berlinale-winning “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” with a dizzying, dazzling feat of social critique, an all-fronts-at-once attack on the zeitgeist, and a mischievous, often hilarious work of art about the artifice of work. Funny and furious, crude and subtle, unkempt and thoroughly disciplined, this deranged movie is also maybe the sanest film of the year: a multifaceted manifesto exposing the absurd internalized fallacy that one must work in order to live, when it’s work — as in, the pitiless daily grind — that will be the death of us all.

Life is short but art is long, the saying goes. And at two hours 43 minutes, “Do Not Expect…” is indeed long, divided into two lopsided chapters and so replete with provocative ideas that any given five-minute segment could emit enough intellectual energy to initiate fission in a small nuclear reactor. Its anarchic approach, full of digressions and addenda and footnotes that refuse to stay underfoot, is immediately apparent, with the first, longer chapter called “a dialogue” with 1981 film “Angela Moves On,” directed by Lucian Bratu, starring Dorina Lazar as a Bucharest taxi driver. Sure enough, the frenetic day-in-the-life escapades of our contemporary heroine, also called Angela (an electrifying Ilinca Manolache) are intercut with scenes from the older film, sometimes elegantly, more often with one of editor Catalin Cristutiu’s deliberately disruptive blunt-edged snips. It’s a conceit that yields fascinating parallels, that turn out not to be parallel but convergent, when Lazar’s Angela, now in her eighties, shows up unexpectedly in the modern-day storyline.

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The Angela of now – this film is so current it’s like it wrapped five minutes ago – has a thankless gig as a gofer for a local production company hired by an Austrian corporation to film a work-safety promo. In DP Marius Pandaru’s grainy, high-contrast black-and-white she rises blearily at an ungodly hour and stumbles naked across her bedroom, which is littered with empty bottles and paperback Prousts, to prep quickly for another 16-to-20-hour day running errands around Bucharest.

But even before she gets into the car where she apparently spends most of her life, we meet Bobita, Angela’s obnoxious online alter ego. This satirical persona, modeled on self-proclaimed misogynist and accused rapist/sex trafficker Andrew Tate, emerges whenever inspiration strikes, which is often because Angela’s exhaustion manifests in a strung-out nervous energy that never seems to flag. Barely disguised by a ghoulish, poorly synced filter — bald and bushy browed — Angela films herself delivering garishly ugly snippets of virulently offensive hate speech. It seems Bobita is the channel through which she can expel the sexist and racist toxins that leach into her system through prolonged contact with the quagmire that is modern urban life — a blackhead removal strip for the soul.

Today, Angela’s task is to tape interviews with workers who were injured on the job, so the Austrians, represented by the regally detached Ms. Goethe (Nina Hoss), can choose an appropriate mouthpiece for their video. Angela gets on well with her subjects, usually parting ways on a ribald joke — every encounter is studded with gags and anecdotes that range in tenor from juvenile to profound: Romanian dictator Ceausescu fixing football contests. Revered early cinema pioneer Georges Méliès filming mustard commercials. Porn stars who can only keep it up by pausing mid-thrust to log on to PornHub. Lowbrow gossip about Anthony Bourdain sits alongside glancing references to Karl Marx, ancient Egyptian burial practices and the infamous boxing prowess of German director Uwe Boll (played, of course, by Uwe Boll).

The cacophony of imagery and messaging is such effective, attention-stealing distraction from the broader forces of corporate exploitation, it’s no wonder that when driving Bucharest’s traffic-clotted roads, Angela chews gum, necks energy drinks, listens to thumping music and is still barely able to keep from passing out at the wheel. In Manolache’s extraordinary performance, she’s a highly relatable avatar for a generation swindled out of the very idea of leisure time or job satisfaction by the con that is the gig economy. But she is also wholly herself, an outlier weirdo with a brilliant magpie mind that throws off sparks like the sequins on her T-shirt dress — an outfit flashy enough to conceal its later accidental mussing during a brisk, efficient tryst with a lover inside her parked car.

On a drive in from the airport, Angela chats with Ms. Goethe, a woman who gives the impression of having coolly sold her soul to the devil (her great-great-great-grandfather was indeed the author of “Faust”) in return for a fat bonus check and an eternally ironed pantsuit. Angela mentions a treacherous road on the city’s outskirts that is lined with crosses commemorating those who have died in motoring accidents. And just like that, after all the frenzied hubbub, we are in a deathly silent stretch of montage, in which footage of 115 of those crosses unfolds unhurriedly, a dolorous reminder that it is always, as a wall clock with no hands announces, later than you think.

This somber sequence introduces the closing chapter. In a single unbroken, locked-off shot, Ovidiu (Ovidiu Pîrșan), the wheelchair-user chosen as spokesman by the Austrian overlords, delivers take after take of his testimonial, the truth of which dies a slow death by a thousand corporate cuts. All that wasted energy! All those pointless man-hours! It’s a process that demonstrates why, in Jude’s scathing, impish imagination, we shouldn’t expect too much from the end of the world: it comes not with a bang nor even a whimper, but with the realization that it’s been ending all along. We’ve just been kept too busy working to notice.

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