The Mondo Cane Collection (1962-1971) – PopMatters Film Review )

For too long, Mondo Cane and the other shock cinema movies made by Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi have been cursed, condemned, and castigated as prefabricated trash. For most people, the name evokes home video vomitoria like Faces of Death (1978) and Shocking Asia, Part 1 (1974). But these viewers have probably never seen a real Mondo movie. Instead, they’ve seen the imitations (Mondo Bizarro [1966], Mondo Mod [1967] or Mondo Teeno [1967]), or Michael O’Donoghue’s “too raw for broadcast television” parody, Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video (1979).

Upstart DVD label Blue Underground may change that with The Mondo Cane Collection. Jacopetti and Prosperi had a solid filmmaking agenda in mind when they first determined to reinvent the documentary. While they were filled with disturbing images and ideas, the original Mondo Cane movies — indeed, all the films here, with the exception of Women of the World — offer acerbic social commentaries and new ways of looking at the world.

Most everything in The Mondo Cane Collection is unconventional, from subject matter to editing and direction. When the first film, Mondo Cane — literally translated as “A Dog’s World” — was “unleashed” in 1962, it caused a firestorm of controversy. Critics christened it vulgar and pornographic. Yet the movie was such a huge hit internationally that it found even more mainstream acceptance when its musical theme was turned into the turgid pop song “More,” itself a global smash that was even nominated for an Oscar: not too shabby for a documentary about bizarre local rituals around the world.

Mondo Cane is structured as a series of juxtapositions between contemporary and traditional cultures. Wealthy pet owners in Pasadena bury their beloved bow-wows in chic graveyards, while tribespeople in Taipei braise Bowser for Sunday supper. Los Angeles housefraus indulge in Vic Tanny luxury spa treatments while the women of Tabar are fattened to increase their fertility. Hilarious, sad, and minimally gruesome, Mondo Cane is everything you think it is and something you might not expect, that is, intelligent documentary by way of droll comedy.

The sequel, 1964’s Mondo Cane 2, is composed primarily of leftovers from the first film, also by way of juxtaposition. Naudi tribeswomen from the Equatorial Sudan desperately collect dew off leaves, alongside a woman in Brussels dousing herself under a famous fountain near the Grand-Place. Flamingoes fill the sky above Africa’s Magadi Lake; then we see their nesting grounds have been fouled by sewage from a nearby soft drink plant, killing their newborn chicks. Even this ugliness pales by comparison to a scene showing captured slave traders (on the Red Sea Coast) and their torture devices, which deformed Baduku beggar children. Like its predecessor, Mondo Cane 2 asks us to sympathize with the oppressed and despise the privileged.

In between the powerful one-two punch of the Cane films, Jacopetti and Prosperi released Women of the World, in 1963. Boring and repetitive, narrated by Peter Ustinov, the film showcases women of all races, creeds, sexual orientations, and occupations. Deploying National Geographic-style nudity and violence familiar from the Cane films, Women lacks a clear agenda. It’s only in the final 10 minutes, a section called “Some Missionaries,” that the old Jacopetti and Prosperi Mondo “magic” kicks in. In response to a fashion show featuring French models, heavily ornamented African tribeswomen in Nigeria beg to have their stubby nails polished, while the glamour gals look mystified and uncomfortable. Similarly, the crosscutting between European women suffering through modern dermabrasion techniques and Bedouin women in the Middle East smearing camel dung on their cheeks, shows that both groups seek “rejuvenation” through ritual. Unfortunately, these sequences are too little too late.

Thankfully, the filmmakers are back on track with 1966’s electrifying Africa Addio (Goodbye, Africa). An exposé about the end of colonialism and the beginnings of civil unrest in Africa, this film offers an uncompromising look at the aftereffects of white domination, namely, revolutions initiating tribal wars, xenophobia, and genocide. At the same time, Jacopetti and Prosperi compose stunning contrasts: superb sunsets over mass graves; endangered animals slaughtered in fertile wetlands. The film’s thesis is clear: Britain and France have a lot to answer for. Their hasty retreat and lack of follow-up aid led to the devastation of the populations they had previously exploited. To underline the point, The Mondo Cane Collection includes the Directors’ Cut, where added scenes of warfare and bloodshed undermine the “travelogue” of the originally released English language version.

The final film of the set is the fictional, self-labeled “documentary” Addio, Zio Tom (1971). Here Jacopetti and Prosperi turn their twisted focus to the atrocities committed against African slaves in the U.S. South. Following a cargo of human chattel as it is sold, tortured, and debased, Goodbye, Uncle Tom is a searing denunciation of slavery as an institution and way of thinking. Filled with images of haunting beauty (pastel Southern belles on Louisiana plantations) and gut-wrenching injustice, the movie walks a difficult tightrope. Some viewers may be alarmed by images of “breeder” slaves, kept in cages like drooling animals, fat mammies “yassa”-ing the “massas,” and speeches extolling “scientific” rationales for enslaving “inferior” human beings.

Such broad stereotypes and re-enactments make Goodbye, Uncle Tom seem the “missing link” between the Mondo Cane movies and the obviously staged Italian cannibal films (such as Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, 1980) that would usurp their notoriety. (That said, the Directors’ Cut of Addio Zio Tom draws explicit links between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s and pre-Civil War South, and replaces most of the goofy Southern plantation scenes with 30 minutes of footage documenting protests and race riots.)

A documentary exclusive to this DVD box set, 2003’s The Godfathers of Mondo, gives Jacopetti and Prosperi a chance to defend themselves against accusations that they created scenes to make their movies more “explosive.” Though they admit that Mondo Cane 2 contains “invented” footage (the monk martyr setting himself on fire is a special effect done by another filmmaker and sold to them), they assert that their other documentaries are, as cinematographer Giampaolo Lomi puts it, “real… all real.”

Proclaiming their neorealism in express contradiction to the famous Italian movement spearheaded by Rossellini and De Sica, the directors call Africa Addio their most moving personal and professional experience, and Addio, Zio Tom a minor misunderstood masterpiece. Though they recall the murder accusations made against them after the release of Africa Addio, they only briefly mention the erosion of the partnership. The Mondo Cane Collection makes a case for Jacopetti and Prosperi, providing another frame for their films. Beautiful and blasphemous, they offer alternately dazzling and bleak images, as the filmmakers claim to pursue “truth.”