Thanks to William Lustig and the friendly folks at Blue Underground, serious fans of cinematic weirdness can check out the numerous films of Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti. Who are Prosperi and Jacopetti, you ask? Good question. Before checking out this awesome eight disc limited edition set, I knew little about these two Italian filmmakers. I once heard about "Mondo Cane" years ago, but had never investigated further. Thanks to the voracious appetites awakened in the masses with the advent of DVD technology, I finally got the chance to acquaint myself with this film and the others that followed it. What an experience! The eight discs in the set consist of "Mondo Cane," "Mondo Cane 2," "Women of the World," "Africa Addio: The Director's Cut," "Africa Addio: English language version," "Goodbye Uncle Tom: English language version," "Addio Zio Tom: The Director's Cut," and an interview disc with the two directors created especially for this set called "The Godfathers of Mondo." So what does it all mean? According to these discs, the two filmmakers birthed a phenomenon that led directly to the current spate of reality-based media. Most of these films are documentary style epics showing our world--or at least how it looked back in the 1960s--in all of its bizarre and frivolous forms. "Mondo Cane," by the way, translates as "A Dog's World." An apt title when you see the films, to be sure.
Start your experience with "Mondo Cane," "Mondo Cane 2," and "Women of the World." These are the first three films made by the two moviemakers, and are arguably the quirkiest. These three documentaries capture some of the oddest rituals practiced by peoples throughout the world. We see strange and bloody religious rituals in Italy, the grotesque lengths women will go to retain their youthful appearance, animals dying from radiation poisoning in the South Pacific, shark hunts, the horrific effects of Thalidomide, primitive peoples in New Guinea building shrines to airplanes, and so many other diverse oddities that it simply staggers the imagination. Many scenes are tame to modern eyes, some are still shocking, and several are just plain amusing. For example, you will laugh yourself sick over the "slap the faces" concert seen at the end of "Mondo Cane 2," although the participants look decidedly unhappy over their performance. There are plenty of extras on these three discs, including poster stills, trailers, and a few other worthwhile goodies; the picture quality is so good, so crystal clear, that the colors simply take your breath away.
Perhaps the most controversial film made by Prosperi and Jacopetti was "Africa Addio" ("Farewell, Africa"), an attempt to document the changes in Africa during the time when the European imperial powers granted independence and withdrew from the continent. Ultimately accused of racism by critics for their unflinching portrait of a region gone mad, "Africa Addio" reveals in grisly detail the monstrous crimes committed by indigenous Africans against the remaining white settlers and the local wildlife. Large segments of the film show poachers brutally killing animals in the parks set up by Europeans. Moreover, the killing extends to humans as civil wars break out across the continent, with Africans killing each other, slaughtering Muslim minorities, and battling white mercenaries. Two executions caught on camera eventually resulted in charges against Gualtiero Jacopetti, who stood accused of orchestrating the killings for the camera (he was eventually exonerated). As tough as this film is to watch, try and look past the bloodshed and enjoy the panoramic scenery found in nearly every scene. Africa, despite all of its troubles, truly is a beautiful land.
Nothing will prepare you for the nightmarish images in "Addio Zio Tom," (Goodbye Uncle Tom) a film made to counter charges of racism stemming from the "Africa Addio" experience. Fashioned as a sort of pseudo documentary where the filmmakers go back in time and visit the American South during the slave era, the movie is a grim look at the degrading conditions faced by Africans brought here as chattel. Every scene is absolutely mind blasting stuff, a horrific recreation of such abhorrent activities as the breeding of slaves, the formulation of scientific racism, hunting down and killing escaped slaves, the sickening conditions of the slave ships, the slave markets, and a billion other objectionable situations. The filmmakers based their film on written records and accounts of slave life, ultimately using the issue of slavery to make a statement about contemporary (1960s and 1970s) American race relations. Be sure and watch both versions: the English language cut is an entirely different film from the director's cut. Both are grueling experiences tempered only slightly by Riz Ortolani's FANTASTIC musical score (Ortolani scored "Mondo Cane" as well and snagged an Academy Award nomination for the song "More" from that film).
"The Godfathers of Mondo" provides plenty of information about the collaboration between Prosperi and Jacopetti, Ortolani's musical work on the films, and a chronological discussion of each film. The impression I took away from the "Mondo Cane" films was the silliness of humanity in general, how we all do ridiculous things in our everyday life and never give any of it a second thought. At the same time, we are capable of particularly vicious activities that we never give a second thought to, either. With "Africa Addio" and "Addio Zio Tom" the whole scope of Prosperi and Jacopetti's documentary style changed. These films dwell on human beings as barbarians engaged in enormous bouts of cruelty and bloodshed. One of the filmmakers says in "The Godfathers of Mondo" that violence is a part of life that should appear in any attempt to document the human experience. I agree wholeheartedly, but that doesn't make these two films any easier to watch. Thanks, Blue Underground, for a truly memorable experience.