October 25, 2005 -- There is universal anger over the immense power of international corporations and the powerlessness of those who oppose them. Nowhere is this power more feared than among those who work for these corporations. They must bow to every whim of their unseen foreign corporate masters. There is virtually no freedom in the workplace. The film “Smoking Room” deals with the politics of corporate power by focusing on one small complaint: the lack of a smoking room in one Spanish office of an American company which has a no-smoking policy.
Ramirez (played by Eduard Fernández), a worker in a Spanish corporate office, resents the company's no-smoking policy and sets out to circulate a petition for a designated smoking room. All the other smokers in the company agree with him. They don't like having to go outside in the cold of winter to light up a cigarette. Soon, however, Ramirez finds it difficult to get signatures on his petition. Employees think it will be bad for their careers to sign it. One employee who refuses to sign ends up losing his job anyway, a decision made in the corporate headquarters thousands of miles away for mysterious reasons. Ramirez is warned by his boss that he could lose his job if he doesn't drop his petition.
Meanwhile, two other employees scheme to embezzle money from the company. Two other employees sit in an office and complain that the new company president is a black man. Racial epithets soon gush forth, an expression of the powerlessness they feel because their jobs can be taken away on a senseless whim by the unseen powers abroad. The men express anger over what they call the “differences” between themselves and the black man. What they are really talking about is the differences between their culture and the culture of the foreigners who control them. The battle for a smoking room is really a tiny rebellion against an American regulation imposed upon Spanish culture. While Americans pride themselves on their love of liberty, they are quite willing to put up with restrictions like smoking regulations and severe property covenants in highly-regulated communities. They are also quite willing to punish people who are non-conformists. Americans are also willing tolerate an almost total lack of freedom in the places where they work.
This Spanish film shows American power in a way Hollywood films seldom explore. The film also shows how vicious office politics can get. It shows how fear and office politics can cause employees to strive against their own interests. It shows how the old ideas of unions and worker solidarity have given way to suspicion, fear and a selfish attitude that serves their corporate masters very well. This film is as relevant in the United States as it is anywhere else.
Unfortunately, the film suffers from claustrophobic sets and extreme close up camera shots of the actors, making it look more like a play than a movie. There is little sense of place and not much action (but when the action does happen, it is shocking). It is mainly a long series of talking, smoking heads. The ideas are interesting, but the presentation is sluggish and the production is betrayed by a very limited budget. The film was nominated for a 2003 Goya Award for best original screenplay. This film rates a C+.
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