“There are so few real events any more. A plane crashes in a London airport but we don’t see a photograph of a single body, so we don’t feel the impact of death. In this country the coffin lid is not open: death is factored out of our lives. People are subtracted from life like contestants in Big Brother.”
Many are those directors whose talent was not immediately recognized; they are somewhat romantic figures paying testament to the conservative nature of the institution of Cinema. Fewer are those who can be credited with having invented a genre and yet be granted the inglorious privilege of critical contempt. Instant official recognition is a relatively recent clause implemented by a hyper-competitive marketplace where celluloid bums are no longer welcome. Either you sell yourself (inside) out or you are kindly shown to the back door of the dream factory. In this scenario the role of film criticism is increasingly becoming a badly concealed form of vassalage. The good old days when audiences, critics and filmmakers were divided by spirited debates and stood their ground openly attacking each other seem to be confined to a bygone era of economic prosperity. There were days in fact when a hostile critical reception did not prevent a movie from achieving commercial success, that is the case of Mondo Cane (1962) by the late Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi ravaged at the time of its release by the European quality press.
If indifference signals a total lack of artistic merit, irritation and simpering condescension on the contrary indicate a bad conscience masquerading in an overconfident sense of superiority. Far from being a capricious choice, to approach Jacopetti’s work through the lens of its own critical reception helps us locate its importance in relation to the perverted omnipotence of our media landscape. As one of Jacopetti’s fans, the British novelist JG Ballard pointed out: “the critical/respectable reaction to the Jacopetti films was uniformly hostile and dismissive. As always, this confirmed their originality and importance.”
It is in fact time to acknowledge how much of the cynical unscrupulousness with which mainstream media package their news – particularly those concerning wars and senseless cruelty – derives from films such as Mondo Cane and Africa, Addio (1966). For many of the techniques used by Jacopetti in his films – sensationalist imagery, opportunistic editing and carefully faked reality – and rejected at the time by indignant critics are today accepted as the norm and nobody dares to question their ethical integrity anymore.
The voyeuristic travelogue of Mondo Cane, directed by an Emilio Salgari of the gutter press, has today been exhausted by a spectacular reality that trivializes the serious while high-mindedly treating assorted banalities. Perhaps it is not coincidental that Gualtiero Jacopetti, who died at the age of 91 on August the 17th, was first and foremost a journalist. He had given proof of his adventurous spirit by assisting the American troops in 1944-45 when they entered Italy; in the 50s he funded a news magazine, Cronache (“Chronicles”), laying the foundations of what will later become L’Espresso, still one of Italy’s most respected and authoritative weeklies. Later on, Jacopetti would cut his teeth on “cinegiornali” (newsreels) where his trademark sarcasm and irony aimed at entertaining audiences rather than informing them. Then in 1962 came the huge success of Mondo Cane, which premiered at Cannes to jubilant audiences and outraged critics. An English reviewer lamented “the lack of a precisely defined attitude towards its material” while a distinguished member of the Italian film critics circle was shocked by the positive audience reaction, whose level equaled, in his opinion, Jacopetti’s “fairly vile” taste. The Cahiers du Cinema wrote it off with a “le film est plus bête que méchant” (“the film is more stupid than wicked”).
Only Variety lucidly grasped this “impressive, hard-hitting documentary feature whose controversial elements will help sell it both at home and in many foreign marts”, not only by understanding its commercial potential, but by also admitting that “a pondered view must evoke the conclusion that we do indeed live in a dog’s world and that, per some of the highlights, we have much to be ashamed of”. It is quite obvious here that the American reviewer, thanks to his cultural ‘vantage point’, already took for granted the reality of such a socio-aesthetic proposition and considered “the cruel treatment inflicted on animals, including the human species” as inevitable as entertaining.
Presciently enough the Mondo Cane opens with a film casting shoot held in the small southern Italian village of Castellaneta, birthplace of silent Hollywood star Rudolph Valentino. Young Italian men from the provinces longing for the ultimate American dream: to become a movie star. There is something deeply familiar in these intrusive zooms, these masks of life morbidly surrendering to the lure of the camera, to a few seconds of glory, to the primal screen. Here we are, witnessing the incubation of Reality TV, of X Factor, of America’s Got Talent…”its periphery too!” beg these faces, warped by excessive camera angles and alien illusions. Cut. Off to Africa, exotic site of primitive rites and subhuman habits, a woman breastfeeding a pig: “there is still one place on this earth where there is not much difference between the life of a pig and that of a child” remarks the glib voiceover. After the Dark Continent it is now the turn of the Old continent. Cheerful French women force-feeding ducks in order to get a richer foie gras, the sicker the animal’s liver the more delicious foie gras will be; the aptest metaphor for modern living. Wealthy Californians mourn their dogs buried in idyllic cemeteries; dogs are being eaten in a restaurant in Formosa. The ‘House of Death’ in Singapore, where cameras are not allowed, is morbidly key-holed up by the directors’ carnivorous eyes. Close to the ‘explosive’ Bikini islands turtles have lost their way to the sea due to atomic radiation and, so, amorally, the film goes forth. The film is sealed by the Cargo Cult phenomenon, the grotesque impact of the ‘progressive’ mind invaders on the pre-industrial psyche. Tribesmen staring at the sky wait for the gods to land on US aircrafts.
The intemperate presentation of these evil banalities, today so cynically familiar, flattens their significance down to a laugh, a shudder or a grimace of disgust. This hyper-sensationalised response forecloses any possibility to delve deep into the subject; the spectator is content with the readymade conclusions that such superficiality implies. It is also the centrifugal speed at which images are paraded that dispels the will to learn anything about what is being watched, “shock cuts” – as defined by the director – create a perpetual craving for the next morbid curiosity to show up leaving no time to think through the previous one.
Analyse the average news service on TV today and you will find, immaculately preserved, the same Jacopettian syntax and its ferocious hypocrisy. The toxic charm of violence, the intrusive nature of voyeurism and the abusive staging of exoticism are the primary ingredients of our daily info-diet. Africa, Addio is in this regard emblematic of modern war reportage. Injustices are reported only when committed by the uncivilised natives, evil dictators replacing benevolent western rulers who are only trying to rescue the savages from their own madness. Freedom is to be bestowed upon the barbarians by western authorities; it is not a natural and just condition for each individual. Even apartheid in South Africa is the outcome of a mutual will to remain segregated. Freed from any historical perspective and interpretative effort the film puts forward a blind mentality that ignores other people’s stances and their (crushed) dignity. To highlight the parallels with contemporary events would be pedantic and superfluous…
Jacopetti’s pivotal role lies well beyond the plethora of imitations that his Mondo Cane generated; it is the very ‘style’ of his films that constitutes the genetic foundation of modern infotainment. That unilateral, incomplete, prejudiced, fragmented and presumptuous way of reporting facts while infecting their reliability is the quintessential characteristic of western media.
Another crucial element proving the pioneering nature of Jacopetti’s oeuvre is the way in which his films were marketed to the tune of scandals and extra-cinematic rows. The director went to court accused of having staged some of the executions documented in Africa, Addio, acquitted he could now count on a gossiping wave of free advertisement. The catchy main theme from the soundtrack, the rumours from the set, contradictory accusations bouncing from the daily press to the radio and then being blessed on TV were already designing what was to become known as convergence culture. It is this porous and pervasive ability to decline the content of a movie and its yet unseen controversy on multiple media, exploiting the alarmist and gullible weaknesses of consumers, that makes Mondo Cane and Africa, Addio examples of an innovative if deceitful promotional strategy.
Contemporary mass-mediated narratives possess the same noxious and callous charm of Jacopetti’s shockumentaries, illegal invasions sold as humanitarian wars, crime as entertainment, sex & violence…the difference being: audiences are not shocked anymore. Tamed yes, by that same moralising solemnity covered in unspeakable filth.