he big daddy of the Mondo movies remains, nearly half a century after its release, one of the most entertaining, eye-popping, colourful, repulsive and challenging films ever made. A whirlwind compendium of colour documentary footage – some of it real, some of it staged – from the four corners of the globe, Mondo Cane assaults and assails the viewer with a non-stop cavalcade of extraordinary sights, showing the strange customs of mankind both “primitive” and “civilised” all taking place in the early 1960s. The whole thing is beautifully photographed, lushly scored and edited with a skill and daring that few films can compete with.
The challenge of Mondo Cane is that, as opposed to the received wisdom on documentary film-making, it refuses to elucidate, argue, educate or inform through its footage. It simply throws the stuff in the viewer’s face, asking them to spin from one contrasting (or, more often, bizarrely similar) curiosity to another. So in the first few sequences of the film we fly from a remembrance ceremony for Valentino in his birthplace (all the men look like him due to the inbreeding in the area) to the then-current Italian heartthrob Rosanno Brazzi having his shirt ripped off by a bunch of screaming New York Maenads in a fashionable tailor’s shop to a pack of New Guinea women chasing men on the beach in a spring rite. Soon things take a turn for the worse, and we get into some stomach churning footage of animal cruelty with pigs being slaughtered by another tribe of natives, puppy dogs skinned and cooked in Tai Pehi, geese force-fed for foie gras. Later sections of the film become more poignant, if not more shocking, as the effect of atomic bomb test contamination on animals in the Bikini atoll are depicted (a turtle has lost its sense of direction and cannot make it back to the sea), the dying languish in a Singapore House of the Dead as their living relatives feast outside and a Cargo cult attempts to lure planes they believe come from their ancestors away from the “trap” of the white man’s airport. All this and so much more… The film is by turns amusing, nauseating, shocking and moving. It is not, however, manageable by the intellect as a “cohesive” statement of a rational point of view; far from bring a failure on the part of the film makers, this is the film’s greatest triumph. The world and human society in it has an abundance of irrational behaviours, and Mondo Cane simply swirls these around the viewer’s eyes and minds without anything useful to say about them, because nothing useful CAN be said about them – they simply are. The most the film manages is the wry, mordant, cynical outlook of its narrator, who simply talks us through the sequences with the world-weary through-the-motions lack of enthusiasm that a tour guide too long in the job might have. But also, what Mondo Cane does do is successfully blur the boundaries between both “primitive” and “civilised” societies, and between animal and human life. For everyone, it’s “a dog’s life” and the film appropriately begins with disturbing and arresting footage of a dog being dragged towards a pound, intermixing action shots with POV shots – we are watching the dog and feeling his situation with him.
There does seem to be some ecological concerns expressed in the film. The Bikini atoll sequences are very tragic and harrowing, and when I reflect back on the film and picture the drunken Germans desperately trying to enjoy an orgy of alcohol and contrast them with the last remaining stone age tribe in New Guinea, I can’t say that “civilised” man is shown in the better light. Yet the tribes of New Guinea are clearly nearing their extinction, and through the invasion of this film’s lens are dragged into the old Mondo Cane with the rest of us.
I am not sure that Jacopetti and Prosperi have been given enough credit for their achievement in this film; their mise-en-scene and POV is relentlessly non-progressive and they have been punished by critics for their refusal of liberal politics, their hopelessness, their populism and their genius for cinema as entertainment. But it may be that Jacopetti and Prosperi will have the last laugh, as when the viewers of the future want to experience what mid-20th century life was like, like as not they’ll head straight for Mondo Cane. It may also be that they will accept the thing that critics find it most difficult to handle – that fact and fiction are indelibly intermingled in our life, and so the mixture of “real” and “faked” footage that Mondo Cane deals with is actually the best way of getting at what can really be called Reality.