Thursday, April 04, 2013

J. Hoberman -- The Organizer: Description of a Struggle

The Organizer: Description of a Struggle
By J. Hoberman

An unverifiable, if heartfelt, assertion: For the quarter century between 1945 and 1970 (or from Rome Open City to Fellini Satyricon), the world’s greatest popular cinema was produced in Italy—a realm of glamorous superstars, sensational comedians, and great genre flicks. A half dozen maestros were backed by a remarkably deep bench, including writer-director Mario Monicelli (1915–2010), whose 1963 strike drama I compagni (The Comrades), released in the U.S. as The Organizer, is popular cinema in the best sense.

The son of a political journalist who moved from socialism to anarcho-syndicalism to fascism (briefly) to antifascism, and who also founded Italy’s first film journal, Monicelli is best known for his socially aware tragi­comedies. Still, his oeuvre is not easily synopsized. He directed some sixty films and wrote or cowrote more than seventy over the course of a career that began in 1935 with a precocious 16 mm feature based (like Frank Borzage’s No Greater Glory, 1934) on Ferenc Molnár’s novel The Paul Street Boys and ended seven decades later, when he was ninety-one, with The Roses of the Desert (2006), a comedy about an Italian medical unit sent to Libya in 1940.

Monicelli characterized his first studio features, made in the early fifties and mainly starring the great sad-faced clown Totó, as “neorealist farce”—shot on location and affectionately satirizing the struggles of the urban poor. (“The themes that make one laugh always stem from poverty, hunger, misery, old age, sickness, and death,” the director maintained. “These are the themes that make Italians laugh, anyway.”) With the genially caustic A Hero of Our Times (1955), featuring the young Alberto Sordi as a craven lower-middle-class schemer, and Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), an enormous international hit, not least in the U.S., Monicelli pioneered what would be called commedia all’italiana—tales of hapless schemers, in Big Deal played against type by matinee idols Vittorio Gassman and Marcello Mastroianni.

However cowardly or amoral, Monicelli’s protagonists are essentially sympathetic in their ineptitude—and their privation. The Great War (1959), cowritten, like Big Deal, with the team of Age-Scarpelli (Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli), paired Sordi and Gassman as dim-witted crooks dragooned into the Italian Army during World War I. Not simply antimilitarist but antipatriotic, it shared the Golden Lion with Rossellini’s World War II drama Il generale della Rovere at the 1959 Venice Film Festival. The Passionate Thief (1960), with Anna Magnani as a would-be con artist, followed, along with a contribution to the anthology film Boccaccio ’70, a frothy yet piquant comedy about the oppression, sexual and otherwise, of two young factory workers.

Monicelli always had an ambivalent relationship with engaged cinema. One of his last works documented the protests around the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa; late in his life, he thanked Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi “for making me feel young again by joining in protests against him who has all the makings of a modern tyrant.” At the same time, his movies are characterized by a marked skepticism: “I always look at a group of people who want to attempt an enterprise greater than their means. They begin this enterprise, and they fail.” The bumbling burglars and botched heist of Big Deal on Madonna Street offer the purest example of such collective failure. The Organizer, a French-Italian coproduction made soon after Monicelli started his own production company, is a more complex dramatization of defeat.

Inspired, according to its director, by the revolutionary ghosts of Paris’s no longer extant Bastille and set in the slums of late-nineteenth-century Turin, The Organizer accepts what the influential Italian Marxist leader Antonio Gramsci saw as “the challenge of modernity,” namely, “to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.” Life is struggle, and to struggle against one’s lot is to flirt with futility. To that end, The Organizer is variously (and, for some, disconcertingly) jaunty, sentimental, comic, and baffling, as Monicelli applies the tonal shifts associated with the French New Wave to a straightforward saga of working-class solidarity. Stanley Kauffmann, who reviewed the movie for the New Republic when it opened in the U.S. in May 1964, found The Organizer “very interesting and very odd”—by which he meant anachronistic. Other critics who, like Kauffmann, had lived through the 1930s also saw The Organizer as a peculiar throwback to the socially significant movies of that period. “What prompted Mario Monicelli . . . to make this picture just now?” Kauffmann wondered. Hadn’t the struggle for workers’ rights long since been won?

Kauffmann was likely unaware of the convulsive autoworkers’ strike that had shaken Turin—and Fiat—in 1962, and yet his puzzlement is understandable. Notable for its period detail and Giuseppe Rotunno’s accomplished faux-daguerreotype cinema­tography, The Organizer is not so much a call to action as to recollection—both a historical monument and a taboo-breaking depiction of a specific moment. Monicelli meant to remind contemporary viewers that decent working conditions and wages were gained over time and at considerable cost. The Organizer, which had its Italian premiere at the 35th Congress of the Italian Socialist Party, is, above all, a movie about how difficult it is to organize collective action, set in a period when Italian unions barely existed.

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