DOCUMENTARY WEEK: Mondo Cane (1962)

I’ve always been afraid of Mondo Cane. It’s the kind of film that is not afraid to manipulate you. So many of its scenes were staged or manipulated. And so much of it lulls you into a stupor as you watch it unfold like a kaleidoscope, then it decides to assault you with moments of pure barbaric intensity. This is a movie out to upset you.

The entire mondo subcategory comes from this film, a documentary written and directed by Italian filmmakers Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi, and Gualtiero Jacopetti.

Cavara and Jacopetti came up with the concept, with Prosperi credited as second director. To make this film, Cavara went on a dangerous quest, traveling the planet to obtain the necessary footage. The two men also met in Las Vegas at one point, where they were involved in the crash that ended actress Belinda Lee’s life (a troubled soul whose affair with married lover and papal prince Filippo Orsini led to a dual suicide attempt that cost his family the hereditary title of Prince Assistant to the Papal Throne).

After Mondo Cane’s appearance at the Cannes Festival and worldwide popularity, Jacopetti claimed sole credit. Cavara would leave the team, going   on to challenge himself with different genres and filming styles throughout his career as a director, including The Wild Eye, where a documentary filmmaker has a crisis of conscience as he pushes his crew to new limits of depravity (an obvious comment on how he felt about former associates Jacopetti and Prosperi) and the well-regarded giallo, Black Belly of the Tarantula.

Jacopetti’s life is the kind of tale that could make its own movie. After fighting alongside the Italian Resistance against Mussolini, he co-founded the influential liberal newsweekly Cronache. However, he was forced to shut down the magazine after being charged with pornography for publishing photos of Sophia Loren. Jacopetti was punished with a year-long prison sentence before journeying through a series of careers, finally landing on being a director.

After Mondo Cane (which roughly translates to the Italian curse, a dog’s world), Jacopetti and Prosperi would go on to use discarded footage to make Women of the World (dedicated to the aforementioned Lee, a lover of Jacopetti asked to be buried next to), Mondo Cane 2Africa Blood and Guts and the beyond depraved pseudo-documentary Goodbye Uncle Tom.

As time went on, the mondos had to outshock one another, constantly topping themselves. The entire crew was nearly executed while making Africa Blood and Guts while filming in Zaire. A scene from this film led to Jacopetti being charged with murder in Italy. He was acquitted of the crime after proving that the killing was unstaged.

This all led to Goodbye Uncle Tom, a film that David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, claimed was a Jewish conspiracy to incite blacks to violence against whites. Presenting itself as a documentary, the film begins with Jacopetti, Prosperi and crew traveling backward through time! Sure, this may have been intended to be an anti-racist attack on the evils of slavery, but it was made with the full cooperation of Haitian dictator Papa Doc Duvalier. Prosperi may have claimed that his films angered many because “the public was not ready for this kind of truth,” but it’s difficult to defend a movie where hundreds of anonymous Haitian extras re-enact vicious scenes of abuse and torture.

The original ending of the movie occurs in the modern era, where a radical black activist reads William Styron’s The Confessions Of Nat Turner and has a fantasy of breaking into a suburban home and murdering a white baby. This was supposedly Jacopetti and Prosperi’s comment on racism, but when you realize that so much of this film basically used slaves to depict the evils of slavery, it’s kind of understand what they were going for. The American distributors of the film certainly didn’t get it and cut all of this.

I mean, this is a movie that claims to be a documentary about a time-traveling crew of Italians who somehow get to meet Harriet Beecher Stowe and Samuel Cartwright, but somehow there’s also a scene where the narrator takes the virginity of a thirteen-year-old teenage prostitute on camera. A commercial and critical failure, this was the end of Jacopetti’s big run of films, although the duo did work together on a cover version of Candie called Mondo Candido. Jacopetti would move back to the world of print while Prosperi would direct Gunan, King of the Barbarians and The Throne of Fire. 

But what of Mondo Cane? This film takes your eye on a savage journey, starting with a dog being dragged through the pound as other dogs bark at him. From a statue of Valentino to women tearing off the shirt of actor Rossano Brazzi (Fulci’s Dracula in the Provinces), men being hunted by women becomes the theme, juxtaposing New Guinean tribal rituals with bikini girls on the Riviera.

If you love animals, you can pretty much leave the room now. Because Mondo Cane is going to laugh at those who mourn their pets at a cemetery, going so far to highlight other dogs pissing on their graves. From pigs being slaughtered to dogs being skinned alive in Taiwan, chicks being dyed for Easter and geese being force-fed, the film begins its descent into man’s inhumanity to, well, everyone.

Animals are dying from radiation. Fishermen shove toxic sea urchins down the mouth of a shark. And then people get drunk. More girls in bikinis. Massage parlors. Hulu dances. Skulls, dying, death and cars being smashed.  Bullfights, bull beheadings and soldiers dressed in women’s clothes. My chronology is screwy now, but the film has become a barrage, assaulting my eyes and sense of reason.

The film ends with a cargo cult, a term given to South Pacific based aboriginal religions that would build airplanes and military landing strips as part of rituals hat they hoped would summon the gods that had brought them supplies during World War 2.

Mondo Cane predates and prepares us for the never-ending news cycle that we find ourselves in today. Yet even though it’s nearly sixty years old, it remains a rough testament. It doesn’t just show you the mud and filth, it pushes your face into it and laughs at you as you struggle to maintain your footing in the muck.

Yet this is also a film that was considered for the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for best song, thanks to “More,” the theme that was written by composers Riz Ortolani and Nino Oliviero. I don’t think that it’s any coincidence that Ortolani would go on to create the theme song to an even more depraved film — Cannibal Holocaust.

Should you watch Mondo Cane? That’s up to you. The voiceover may say, “All the scenes you will see in this film are true and are taken only from life. If often they are shocking, it is because there are many shocking things in this world. Besides, the duty of the chronicler is not to sweeten the truth, but to report it objectively.” But we also know that so much of this was staged or presented from many angles for maximum effectiveness. So what is truth? You’re not going to find it in a film like this that goes right for your jugular. Crash author J.G. Ballard said that mondo films are a place where “Nothing was true, and nothing was untrue.” Are you ready for that?

If so, you can watch Mondo Cane for free with an Amazon Prime subscription.

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