Documentary's dark underbelly
In the Mondo Cane films, the world is truly going to the dogs. One day, Fido is sharing Master’s own plate, the next he’s the main feast. Oh, yes, “you’ll shudder and gasp in amazement.” The filmmakers soberly take the viewer on a perverse journey to the far reaches of the globe, but this is no National Geographic special. Far from it!
As Mondo Cane sheds light on cultures and events rarely seen, it bewitches us into a strange psychological arousal as we witness increasingly bizarre scenes of everyday humanity.
Mondo Cane I and II, documentaries by classification, were directed by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi. The first Mondo Cane was released in 1962 and spawned a new genre of shock documentaries or “shockumentaries” as they came to be known. It can easily be argued that the genre eventually mutated into the reality TV shows we find ourselves tuning into with outward disgust and inward glee. Do series like My 600-lb Life and Little People, Big World really satisfy anything other than our primal need to stop-and-gawk? And if titillating television is what Mondo Cane gave rise to, the original circus freak shows and human zoos are most certainly where it all began. Indeed the directors are the first to admit that their goal was to make an anti-documentary in response to their revulsion at the prevalent Italian filmmaking style of the time known as Neorealism—a paired down approach that presented the world “as is.”
In the opening scene of Mondo Cane, the detached voice of the narrator states that all that will be presented is factual. As passive observers, we are lulled into believing that what we see is real. In fact, the opposite may be true. The film takes off at a mad pace, void of storyline, juxtaposing, and contrasting and stoking disbelief. The directors navigate the viewer through a world labyrinth of odd ceremonies, tribal rituals and extreme religious rites. As Mondo Cane sheds light on cultures and events rarely seen, it bewitches us into a strange psychological arousal as we witness increasingly bizarre scenes of everyday humanity. And just as we get comfortable on our exotic trip, disbelief kicks in. Wait, this can’t be real! The filmmakers admit to re-enacting certain scenes but are others pure fabrication? This smacks of reality TV with its planned situations and creative editing. Even veteran film critics aren’t sure which scenes are real and which have sprung from the directors’ fertile imaginations. Jacopetti and Prosperi do concede to alternating between extremely shocking scenes and more light-hearted ones in order to keep the viewer watching, rather than turning away.
The Mondo Cane films launched a new style of filmmaking that would eventually branch out in many directions from the gritty Mondo Horror style including Faces of Death (1978) to today’s “fake news” journalism.
With the stated premise of putting forth the “show of humanity itself,” the directors keep the audience squirming on the edge of their seats as they jump from one disjointed but related subject to another. In one scene from Mondo Cane I, the camera shows French women force-feeding geese to produce fois gras. The aloof narrator specifies that the practice is far more humane now that they no longer nail the geese’s feet to the floor of their cages. Skip to Tabar, where young virgins held in cages are “stuffed with tapioca until they reach at least 264 pounds” and are ready to be offered to the tribe leader. Did they say 264 pounds? How did this primitive tribe arrive at this very specific ideal weight to bear the big man’s offspring? The contrasting realities and dubious facts may make you wonder whether the filmmakers are mocking their audience.
But wait there’s lots more shock for your curious mind. Cut to the pig feast. The narrator emphasizes that the feast only takes place once every five years followed by a period of near famine. Sounds a little hard to swallow. And do the natives really use their nose jewellery as convenient toothpicks? Lucky for the children the feast includes a pick up game of soccer using the inflated pig intestines as a ball. “Someone remembered the children and didn’t eat all of the intestines.” Huh? Didn’t the narrator say there was a famine?
The film becomes more and more shocking, to the point of ridicule, as it progresses. Viewers are left utterly bewildered trying to connect the dots that may or may not be real. Yes, it’s social commentary. The filmmakers were talented and had guts, winning numerous awards for their films. But have we been duped and if so does it really matter as long as we get the message? The Mondo Cane films launched a new style of filmmaking that would eventually branch out in many directions from the gritty Mondo Horror style including Faces of Death (1978) to today’s “fake news” journalism. Check them out as part of your cinematic education but never stop asking yourself, Is this real?
Watch the original 1962 Mondo cane here: