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You can expect a lot from this freewheeling film about the 'End of the World'

Angela (Ilinca Manolache) is an underpaid production assistant on a film about workplace safety in <em>Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World.</em>
Angela (Ilinca Manolache) is an underpaid production assistant on a film about workplace safety in Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World.

It's easy to feel overwhelmed these days — squeezed by a constantly changing economy, bombarded by the shrieking of social media, surrounded by angry people who genuinely believe that their worst instincts lead them to the truth. This is the world in 2024, yet I can't think of a single American filmmaker who's managed to capture it on-screen.

I can think of a Romanian one. His name is Radu Jude, a world-class troublemaker whose rambunctious movies remind me of everyone from Jean-Luc Godard and John Waters to Lenny Bruce. His latest film, Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World, is a freewheeling provocation, a black-comic road picture that cannonballs into the madness of our time. Clocking in at a resolutely unboring two hours and 40 minutes, the movie crackles with brains, obscenity, political anger and jokes that had me laughing out loud.

Shot mainly in a high-contrast black and white, it follows a day in the life of the 30-ish Angela (Ilinca Manolache), an underpaid production assistant on a film about workplace safety being made for an Austrian multinational. Almost from the moment she wakes up, she's frantically driving around Bucharest to pre-screen people who have been victims of industrial accidents for the film.

Constantly stuck in traffic jams with their blaring horns, Angela blasts heavy metal, blows chewing gum bubbles and flips off men who say lewd things to her. There are many. She's constantly getting calls on a cell phone whose ringtone, ironically enough, is a tacky digital version of "Ode to Joy," the official anthem of the European Union.

In addition to everything else, Angela takes her mother to visit the family plot at a cemetery, stops for a backseat quickie with her boyfriend and rushes to the airport to pick up one of her company's clients, Doris Goethe, a smug Austrian marketing exec played by the great German actress Nina Hoss, whose nastiness comes with nice tailoring. Way too smart for her job, Angela frequently pauses to record hilariously filthy TikToks in the guise of her male alter ego, Bobita, a gleefully sexist, racist, pro-Putin gasbag whose stupidity she is satirizing.

Now, at one level, Jude uses Angela's day to look at Romania with a keen, roving eye, moving his camera away from the action to show us dilapidated streets and billboard ads filled with bogus promises of fit bodies and high-tech prosperity. Meanwhile, the characters we meet tend to be rude, nasty, bigoted and struggling to survive in a poor, corrupt economy. In a stunning silent sequence, Jude shows us the scores of memorials to people who've been killed on a single stretch of badly designed road — it's a metaphor for Romania itself.

Yet even as he highlights his own country's failings, he reminds us that one reason Romania is poor is that richer countries exploit the country's low salaries and cheap natural resources. When Angela asks Doris whether it's true her company is chopping down all of Romania's forests to make its products, Doris goes all Zone of Interest: I don't know, she says. It's not my department.

In his earlier films, Jude explored how our lives are shaped by images, digging into the way those images are created. He does that here, too, even intercutting Angela's story with an actual 1981 film about a woman taxi driver, also named Angela, from the Communist Era. It makes us reflect on the parallels between the two Angelas' lives — are things truly better today?

The film builds to a tour-de-force of a finale, a single 20-minute shot in which we watch Angela's colleagues shooting an interview with a man in a wheelchair who's talking about his workplace accident. Jude lets us see the man's story get massaged by the filmmakers to serve business interests antithetical to his own.

Touching on everything from Zoom calls to action movies to reflexive anti-semitism, Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World is about nothing less than the way we live now. Although obviously heightened, the emotional contours of Angela's story will be familiar to viewers here. She's caught in a system that she finds oppressive and hateful, yet, for all her anger, she doesn't know how to change it. She can only mock it profanely on TikTok.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.