Screenplay : Gualtiero Jacopetti
MPAA Rating : Not Rated
Year of Release : 1963
Any way you look at it, "Mondo Cane" (which is pronounced "car-nay") is a patently silly piece of cinematic junk masquerading as an important anthropological documentary of strange and exotic parts of the world. The dead give-away to its exploitative nature is the condescending, inflated narration that immediately clues the viewer in to the fact that the filmmakers have no respect for the cultures they're documenting. The film is heavy with pretentious superiority on the part of those who made it, which applies to their treatment of both primitive cultures and even some modern ones.
The film itself is nothing more than a hodge-podge of unrelated scenes shot all over the globe, which are intended to give the viewer a taste of parts of the world "where no camera has gone before," or so the filmmakers would like you to believe. Perhaps the cameras of co-directors Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco E. Prosperi did infiltrate some previously unseen corners of the globe, but to a modern audience, it will all seem rather trite.
And, what isn't trite is simply boring. Why does a movie that is supposed to explore the unusual spend large amounts of time showing an American junkyard where old cars are crushed into scrap medal? Or film middle-age tourists coming off a cruiseliner in Honolulu and being showered with flowers by Hawaiian girls in bikini tops who later perform the hula? How about extended scenes of female Australian lifeguards demonstrating their life-saving abilities on eager male volunteers? These sequences are not shocking, they're not fascinating, and they're certainly not interesting.
However, there are some rather explicit scenes that were thoroughly shocking when the film first came out in 1963, but now seem relatively tame by today's standards. The faint-hearted and animal lovers in particular will still be taken aback by some of the cruelty depicted on-screen, but for the most part it isn't any worse than a "National Geographic" special on the Discovery Channel. The main difference is that you might learn something from the "National Geographic" show.
The sequences in "Mondo Cane" have no thematic coherence, other than the desire to document the bizarre and eccentric. These include Asians eating dog, Americans paying $20 a plate to eat ants, New Guinea natives ritualistically slaughtering a herd of pigs, Gurkhas beheading bulls with a single swing of their swords, Italians cutting their legs with broken glass and running down the city streets on Good Friday, and assorted dark-skinned natives of various parts of the world (routinely referred to in politically incorrect terms such as "savages" and "barbarians") who put large sticks through their noses, eat with their hands, and walk around bare-breasted.
Every once in a while, the filmmakers attempt to draw parallels between third world and first world culture, but it is usually laughable. The best instance is the aforementioned Asians who eat dog contrasted with rich Californians who bury their deceased pets in a fancy pet cemetery outside of Los Angeles. This can also be contrasted to the scene of a New Guinea woman (who has recently lost her child) breast-feeding a motherless pig, while the narrator intones, "In some parts of the world, there is not much difference between the life of a child and that of a pig." Deep thoughts, anyone?
And there's the part where the filmmakers attempt to convince us of the damage done to wildlife in the South Pacific from nuclear testing. The proof? Birds who don't attempt to escape human capture, fish who venture onto land and climb trees, and a sea turtle who lays eggs, and then crawls inland instead of going back out to sea. In the last scene, we see the turtle turned on her back, baking to death in the sun, and one has to wonder if the filmmakers didn't betray their previous claim of being mere documentors by turning her over for more dramatic effect. After all , she's in the middle of sandy beach. Are we expected to believe she just tipped over on her own?
The only way "Mondo Cane" is the least bit interesting is when it's seen in a historic perspective. This was the first of an onslaught of "mondo" pictures that glutted the market in the late sixties and early seventies, most of which were faked, all of which were increasingly gruesome and pointless. The relatively tame "shock" tactics of "Mondo Cane" were quickly overrun by increasing violence to animals and humans in films like "Mondo Magic" (1975), graphic and bizarre sexuality in hard-core sex documentaries like "Libidomania" (1978), and the inevitable turn to on-screen human death both real and faked, culminating in the infamous and idiotic "Faces of Death" series (1979-90). (For a fascinating if repulsive history of the mondo genre, read David Kerekes' and David Slater's "Killing For Culture: An Illustrated History of Death Film From Mondo to Snuff.")
In the end, all of these mondo films (or at least, the vast majority of them) are atrocious not because they are shocking, but because they are dishonest. Professing to be "serious" investigations into the darker regions of the world, they are merely immature excuses to be gross. There is nothing wrong with documenting events that some might find distasteful, if it is done with sincerity and in pursuit of intellectual fulfillment, two virtues sorely lacking in the mondo genre. While "Mondo Cane" is one of the least of the transgressors, it established a pattern which future camera-wielding sickos distorted and perverted until the entire notion of "documentary" was twisted in "shockumentary" under an endless avalanche of cheap exploitation.
©1998 James Kendrick