Film history isn’t a highlight reel of universally agreed-upon classics. It’s an epic story. But some chapters of the story draw more attention than others. Secret Cinema is a column dedicated to shining a light on compelling, little-noticed, overlooked, or faded-from-memory movies from years past. Let’s talk about the films nobody’s talking about.
Sometimes it seems like we develop a kind of cultural amnesia. In 1985, the world sent a song called “Rock Me Amadeus” to the top of the charts, but who alive then will now admit to liking it? In 1991, a company called Generra Sportswear couldn’t keep up with public demand for its Hypercolor line of shirts that changed color with the temperature, but who today will admit to ever thinking they were cool? Between 1962 and 1963, the documentary Mondo Cane became a tremendous box-office success, but when we think of the films of 1963, the year it played America, titles like The Birds, Dr. No, and Charade come more readily to mind. When I told our film editor, Scott Tobias, that I was planning to cover Mondo Cane, he looked at me blankly. I expect Scott to know a lot about film, but I wasn’t that surprised. In spite of its success, Mondo Cane has largely been written out of cinematic history, or at least confined to its disreputable back chapters.
It wasn’t always so. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther thought highly enough of the film to introduce his review with Hamlet’s “more things in heaven and earth” quote before calling it “an extraordinarily candid factual film” and describing it as “weird, paradoxical, bizarre and reflective of the range of man’s behavior.” A young Harvard Crimson writer named Hendrik Hertzberg (later to abandon film criticism in favor of more respectable pursuits) called it “probably one of the most fascinating films ever made.” The film even scored an Oscar nomination for “More,” a lovely theme by composers Riz Ortolani and Nino Oliviero, which has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Judy Garland to Bobby Darin. I can’t think of another film featuring close-ups of cooks preparing dog meat that’s gained such mainstream acceptance.
Another name for the mondo genre better captures what the film sets out to do: “shockumentary.” Across 34 globe-spanning sequences, Mondo Cane shows viewers how weird and wild the world really is, or at least how weird and wild it looks when presented selectively and accompanied by misleading narration. The film’s title translates, roughly, as “It’s a dog’s world,” and it opens with a literal representation of that idea, with a scene of a dog being dragged into a kennel against its will as all the dogs around him bark furiously. “All the scenes you will see in this film are true and are taken only from life,” an opening title explains. (Meanwhile, the voiceover says almost, but not quite, the same thing.) “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.” This is the first of many lines of bullshit, some of them charming, others insulting and offensive, that the film attempts to feed viewers. As if to illustrate its bullshittitude, it’s punctuated with the sound of the dog yelping as it’s thrown in the cage, a sound that was obviously added in post-production.
Then again, that’s true of the entirety of Mondo Cane’s soundtrack, as per usual with Italian films of its era. But the disconnect between sound and image only reinforces how flimsy a claim the film has on the objective truth it says it values. So does an early, obviously staged sequence in which a clutch of American women, driven wild with lust, tear the clothes off Italian actor Rossano Brazzi, an incident so unexpected, Mondo Cane is only prepared to shoot it from three or four angles at once. Soon, the film illustrates another spontaneous outpouring of sexual mania, as a group of American sailors ogle some bikini-clad women who pass by their ship in a yacht, a moment the film covers from both vessels.
I’m hardly the first to question the film’s authenticity. Pauline Kael raged against it, and even Crowther’s review calls the Brazzi scene “clearly staged.” Others, however, bought into some of its more dubious scenes, like a trip to the Bikini Atoll, once home to American nuclear tests and, when Mondo Cane’s filmmakers visited, apparently home to animals whose natural instincts have been scrambled by atomic blasts. Birds that once took to the air now live underground. Fish leap into trees. Eggs refuse to hatch. And in one memorable sequence, a turtle accidentally heads inland rather than out to sea. The camera captures her flailing wildly, and that narration notes how she “in one last delusion, thinks she has finally returned to swim in the sea.” Shortly thereafter, it shows the turtle lying on her back, apparently dying, then a shot of a turtle skull. “After a panorama shot of the birds and a turtle,” Hertzberg’s review notes of his screening in the film with a Harvard audience, “people in the theatre wept audibly.” Did no one stop to wonder how the turtle ended up on its back in the first place?
That doesn’t make the viewers dumb, though, just human. The scene above appears about 45 minutes into the film, at which point Mondo Cane settles into a tone that’s alternately mocking and mournful in its attitude toward the strange sights we’ve been shown. Many of those sights remain fascinating; all of them appeal to our basest voyeuristic instincts, whether it’s the awful images of dogs being kept in a cage for use as food in Taiwan, or footage of a woman suckling a pig. (“This woman’s child has been killed. Now she must suckle a little pig whose mother has died.”) The footage comes from all over the world, but a mid-film sequence that does nothing but watch drunks stumble around Hamburg is as hypnotic as anything else in Mondo Cane.
Three directors receive credit for Mondo Cane: Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi, and Paolo Cavara. Prosperi and former journalist Jacopetti went on to make several more films together as a team, with Jacopetti, who died this past August, receiving much of the credit (and the blame). In David Gregory’s documentary The Godfathers Of Mondo, included in a 2003 box set of their films, Prosperi shrugs off that perception while reasserting his own importance. Mondo Cane speaks in a single voice, however, whoever’s responsible. Whether attempting to shock with scenes of a pig slaughter or trying to milk comedy from scenes from a village on the Bismarck Archipelago, where women are supposedly fattened up to please a tribal chieftain, the tone remains consistently, condescendingly bleak about everything. If there’s a message underlying Mondo Cane, it’s “Life… am I right?”
Jacopetti and Prosperi kept that message going with Mondo sequels and spin-offs that included Mondo Cane 2 (which contains the only scene they admit to faking, a re-creation of the self-immolation of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc) and Africa Addio, whose onscreen executions led some to accuse Jacopetti of conspiring with mercenaries to arrange camera-friendly killings. Jacopetti and Prosperi parted ways after Goodbye Uncle Tom, which made no pretenses to reality and used Mondo Cane-like scenes to depict life in the antebellum American South. (Filmed in Duvalier-era Haiti, the excerpts featured in The Godfathers Of Mondo, with their images of roughly handled children and underage nudity, make it look as cruel and exploitative as any of the pair’s “documentaries.”)
The filmmakers’ influence fanned out from there. Other mondo films followed Mondo Cane in the 1960s and ’70s—Mondo Magic, Mondo Freudo, Mondo Daytona, Shocking Asia, The Killing Of America—before the genre reached its logical end with the Faces Of Death series. But Mondo Cane’s impact doesn’t stop with movies. In Mark Goodall’s book Sweet & Savage: The World Through The Shockumentary Film Lens, J.G. Ballard speaks admiringly of the Mondo Cane films as “an important key to what was going on in the media landscape of the 1960s, especially post the JFK assassination. Nothing was true, and nothing was untrue.” While mondo films as such petered out, the mondo aesthetic has continued to thrive, be it via shows like Fear Factor (whose infamous insect-eating can be traced back to a scene Mondo Cane set in an exclusive, and unnamed, American restaurant specializing in grotesque delicacies), real-or-not docs like Catfish, the dubious reality of reality television, and the many ways the Internet blends fact and fiction. We haven’t forgotten Mondo Cane. We’ve absorbed it. (Keith Phipps)