Mondo Cane (1962): Italy – directed by Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti, and Franco Prosperi
Not rated by the MPAA – contains real-life violence, “scientific” sexual content, animal violence, and some disturbing material
Mondo Cane was, I believe, the first of the mondo documentaries. They were generally produced like the travelogues of the earlier years of cinema, but focused on shocking locations and peoples and cultures. Some of the films were much reviled upon release, and probably with good reason. Mondo Cane is, when viewed with mature eyes, actually a fascinating and enlightening film.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal of shocking behavior and customs exhibited in the film. Rather, the footage is almost always engaging and the technique with which it is presented is remarkably effective. The narrative, which attempts to make grand comments on life around the globe, is best viewed from a skeptical perspective: very few of the scenes are as truthful as the narrative would imply.
The film opens with a disclaimer that some of the footage is shocking and disturbing, just as the real world is shocking and disturbing. This is merely the first step of the film’s masterfully manipulative plan to convince the audience that everything is true. Future Italian films like Cannibal Holocaust managed to pull off this feat well before The Blair Witch Project was born. The film then launches into a series of vignettes; one is of Westerners and their modern way of life, then the next is an immense contrast, shifting the focus to native islanders in the Pacific or exotic Asian countries or a variety of other primitive societies.
One of the first scene shows an Italian Lothario being pursued by hordes of American, as he is an insatiable sex object. Then there is a jarring cut to a horde of topless women on a remote island who are pursuing some young men, who are also highly desirable. The men are shown trying to escape, climbing trees and venturing various other methods to elude their pursuers.
Then another cut to some bikini-clad women on a speedboat, circling a naval boat in harbor and tempting the sailors almost beyond what they can bear. Another cut immediately shows an Island woman suckling a pig, before cutting to a massive ritual ceremony where the men round up hordes of pigs and brutally beat them to death with sticks. Cut to a scene of Americans mourning their pets and burying them in pet cemeteries; another cut and a dog is loyally following an Islander. Cut back to France, where some geese are being force fed a large amount of feed, to fatten their livers to the point where foie gras becomes a tasty climax to their lives. Another cut and a woman is in a cage on a remote island. She, too, is being force fed, until she weighs over 200 lbs. and will be a suitable mate for the elderly chieftain. He already has several large wives, but only the best and biggest women are good enough to make him more children.
All of the footage is accompanied by condescending narration, explaining the various customs in a highly scientific manner. The message is clear: we are all the same, regardless of where we may live. This, however, is just a meager attempt to legitimize the shocking footage, to provide an educational (and therefore acceptable) purpose behind the bizarre scenes. Simultaneously, the narration and purpose of the film make it the fascinating “documentary” that it really is. I don’t believe there is any diagetic sound in the entire picture; all sound effects and narration have been added in during editing , allowing the filmmakers to twist and contort the footage any way they desire. This is incredibly manipulative, and a viewer unaware how crafty the film is may be duped and disturbed. If, however, one accepts that the sound effects (and probably some of the staged footage) are fake, the film becomes a fascinating look at what was considered shocking and exotic in the early 1960’s.
The film starts by showing a number of titillating sequences. Any nudity occurs solely among the primitive, dark-skinned peoples, while any potentially naked white breasts are modestly covered by bikinis. This is just one of the instances where a cultural double standard is imposed on the film’s subjects, and one that is still repeated (at least in the American film system) today. As the film progresses the scenes become increasingly dark and violent. In addition to the aforementioned pig-beatings, there is a scene set in a Malaysian fishing village. When a person dies in the village their corpse is floated out to sea, where it becomes shark food. The sharks linger around their community, and they hunt them to make a living. Many of the villagers have gruesome wounds or amputated limbs, and the film isn’t afraid to show the results of shark attacks. It is then claimed by the narrator that a 12-year old was killed by a shark and the fishermen are getting their revenge. They capture a number of sharks, one at a time, and pry open their mouths. They stuff poisonous sea urchins into their open maws and release them back into the ocean, where, the narration observes, they will suffer for a week until they die.
The film, as a whole, is remarkably respectful of different cultures. The only exception are the Chinese. The proliferation of “the yellow race” is because they spend their energy eating or in bed, and they fill their houses with legitimate and illegitimate children. This scene is the most surprising because the sudden hatred toward an entire country is never explained, and all of the narrator’s claims are just as hollow and unsupported as they are in the rest of the film.
But it is for these reasons that Mondo Cane is so immensely fascinating. The thoughts and perspectives of the filmmakers are almost as bizarre as much of the tribal customs that are so foreign to Westerners. Some of the footage may be staged, but much of it actually occurred. Whether or not it happened as the narrator describes is another question, and one that can provide endless discussion. But it is this illusion of reality that is so interesting, and the manner in which the scenes are stitched together is nearly flawless (despite some dull scenes toward the end, one of which features drunk Germans falling asleep standing on the sidewalk). The most shocking pieces of footage are still shocking today, but a scene where a man might not have survived his wounds from a charging bull is almost too much. Regardless, Mondo Cane offers a lot of discussion for a mature viewer who understands that in the film not everything is as true as the narrator might lead you to believe.