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Mondo Cane Collection (1962-1971, 2003) * Weird & Wacky *


Trash ain't got nuthin on this.

I expect that when most of you read the title of this post you were as oblivious to this film series as I was when I read about it in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. This compilation of the history of film, from the most iconic early silent films to the first African-American directed film, all the way to modern, award winning blockbusters includes the obvious AFI Top 100, and the 'first of' films that exist out there, yet this tome also includes more underground selections like Blaxploitation, Zombie flicks... and just plain weird shit. They have Videodrome, they have Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, they have Pink Flamingos, and they also have Mondo Cane.

Divider Leaves

dissentaryMore than anything, the Mondo Cane Collection is not for everyone, and one of the titles that is greatly deserving of its place in my Caution Films list. Even the hardest-hearted will skip over scenes or turn their heads at truly over-the-top content like butchering and torture of animals, images of genocide, graphic dramatizations of African slavery, and even a most-likely very real execution.

Those of you who know Hunter S. Thompson, author and gonzo journalist extra-ordinaire, will no doubt see a close similarity between his interpersonal journalistic style that is anything but objective and this kind of documentary filmmaking. In short The Mondo Cane Collection is filled with documentaries that are deep into the biased side of the spectrum. Yet, somehow, Mondo Cane and the ilk in its collection is compelling, and I was left with some rather profound emotions from these images, as well as vastly divergent opinions on these works from one moment to the next.

DummyThe biggest problem in the reporting of the Italian documentaries Mondo Cane (1962) and the weaker Mondo Cane 2 (1963), well, with ALL the films in the collection, is that though it may always look real, it is oftentimes obviously staged. The filmmakers swear that the events in Mondo Cane are true, though the question of reality remains ever-present in our mind. We all know about the Buddhist monk who self-immolated himself as a martyr in Saigon, though when we see it in Mondo Cane 2, we're left with plenty of doubt about what or who is actually being burned. In the documentary about the filmmakers, The Godfathers of Mondo (2003), one director says it was the actual monk's sacrifice being captured, while another said they recreated the moment. The truth is well known: Thích Quảng Đức was indeed that famous Buddhist monk who burned himself to death in 1963 in protest, and what we see before our eyes, whether it is real or re-constructed, is poignant and relevant.

In short, the damage of Mondo Cane is done early on with its sensationalist, up-close style and in its choice of dialogue for the narrative. As one watches they may know that some of the things that we witness is real and true, yet on far too many an occasion, there is doubt at the facts. When we see a bloody shark being hoisted out of the water and fed poisonous sea urchins in response to the killed and mutilated people living in a Pacific ocean village, we're left wondering if such a thing ever happened, or even if the urchins are poisonous...

More than a touch racistThen there's the racism. Besides debasing images like the one on the left, with African tribes suffering most of the judgement for being 'primitive', we have narration like the following "the yellow race thinks only of pleasure.  While they eat and celebrate life, just a short distance away they leave their dying in houses for the dead." At this level, however, the racism and ignorance is so well polished that it spans itself and becomes a comment on the filmmakers and the era that spawned them, caustic as it is.  As I watched, this collection became more of a documentary on itself and the mores that created this new filmmaking style.  If we believe that Mondo Cane was as popular and successful as was stated in The Godfathers of Mondo, and given that the term 'Mondo' is now used to coin any sensationalist quasi-documentary, then one can appreciate this on a deeper level, and was ultimately the reason I found the need to keep watching. At least they attack document everything, from Chinese dog-eating habits to American fine dining of insects at The Four Seasons restaurant. Borneo pagan rituals are laid to bare as intensely as Italian self-flagellation religious rituals.

Pet Cemetary! Mondo Cane, Mondo Cane 2, and  Women of the World (1963), looks at the world and culture in a light that uncovers the eyes. One must remember that in 1962, much of the things in these film were unknown, often shocking, sometimes cute (like that pet cemetery) but the theme was global.  Two films in the collection are quite different.

Farewell Africa (1966) declares "You May LOVE It! You May HATE It! But You'll Not FORGET It!" By 1963, over two-thirds of Africa had achieved independence from colonial rule, however the transition was often bloody. This documentary attempts to show the truth behind this change, including extensive footage of poaching, aerial shots of mass genocide graves, and brutal criminal behaviours and their punishments. One African man is brought before a British soldier and shot to death.  The poignancy of this hard African transition into independence was worn away by image after bloody repeated image of elephants being shot to death, by up-close images of missionaries under white sheets, by a pile of punished hands. Forty minutes shorter would have been forty minutes better. It's hard to watch. 

Slave StudGoodbye Uncle Tom (1971) sports the tagline "300 years of hate explode today!" Apparently the shooting style made this less successful theatrically, however it was my personal favorite due to its more educational and interesting historic look into such a subject. The film places itself firmly in the past, putting us in the thick of the era when slavery was the way of the world. We begin by seeing how the slaves were transported from Africa, see the effect of dysentery and death during transport, a trip to the veterinarian for a once over, pricing and display for sale.  It includes differing opinions and arguments, quotes of famous men, from Southern preachers declaring that slavery is biblically acceptable, to English Statement who declare how cost-ineffective it is.  We look into the many related industries: slaves as studs, as farm workers and sex workers, how the whites exacted punishment and dealt with escape, and all the while shot in that familiar and strange Mondo way that would invite cartoonish boings and slide-whistle sounds. Still, even though it's racism in context, it might still be a little too racist for your tastes. As with all the films in the collection, seeing this as a comment on the Mondo crew is a far more educational exercise that buying the content at face value.

Mondo Cane: 'A Dog's Life'
Mondo Cane: 'A Dog's Life'

Overall Rating: 74% (A World Apart)

I completely understand why Mondo Cane (translated it roughly means  'A Dog's Life') has made it into the pages of 1001 Movies. It began a documentary filmmaking style - the shockumentary - that has gone on to spawn such classic fare as Russ Meyer's Mondo Topless, and even as far as the Faces of Death series, which as many of you may know, is full of actual footage of the dying.

Say what you will about trash films taking it too far, but the success of Mondo Cane has earned its place in the hierarchy of film history because it was innovative and new and because to this day the term 'Mondo' means something, all thanks to Mondo's directors Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi

Though I'd never call it high art, regardless of the original images, I may go so far as to call it Avant-Garde. The jury's still out on that one though...

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