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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

The Shocking True Story of the Mondo Movement!

Mondo Cane

George Seminara

I only watched this film once at a midnight screening in High School. I hope never to see it again. But, it earned my respect and showed me that there is a reason the news tries not to show these images. When something goes beyond our ability to reason, we instinctually want to fictionalize it. It didn't happen. We feel that it's like any movie. We can't grasp something so shocking. Our feelings get in the way of truth and it messes us up!

These feelings are the muddy waters I hope to drag you through as we learn about Mondo Cane and the birth of Mondo Culture.

Mondo Cane 1 & 2 the carnival trailer:

Gualtiero Jacopetti (4 September 1919–17 August 2011), the Mastermind and co-creator, with his directing partners Paulo Cavara and Franco Prosperi, created what we now call the Shock-u-mentary. Their film Mondo Cane-literally translates as Dog World, but I guess they meant it to read A Dogs Life. My Italian ain't great, Capisce?

Jacopetti and Monica Vitti

Mondo Cane is not for the faint-hearted. It opens with some man on dog brutality. It's very rough to watch. It continues to show one horror or bizarre thing after another. There is no story except for the predictability of one scene after another. Each stage of the film offers something the viewer has probably never seen before. Or something the audience might not want to see, ever. Jacopetti claimed it was a symphony of horror and told its story through the rhythm of its scenes. Whatever the intention and arrangement, Mondo Cane is not dull. It's suspenseful, like seeing a smoke cloud rise out of the trees while you approach in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Something terrible is coming, and you can't look away.

Mondo Cane was very controversial in its day. In truth, it still is. So, of course, it created its very own genre consisting of sequels and copycats. They are academically referred to as Mondo films. Besides the Italian Mondo sub-category with close to one hundred titles like The Shocking World, Cannibal Holocaust, and Mondo Erotica, There are the American entries, Faces of Death, 1-2-3! Faces of Dying 2-3, where is one? I can't find it. And, The Murder Collection. The German entries include Shocking Asia 1 and 2: The Last Taboo (it rhymes); Russia has made a few, and even the Philippines has jumped into them with their Mondo Manilla.

Russ Meyer made a mondo film called, he called it, of course, Mondo Topless!

It also led to my most disliked category of cinema, torture porn. Yes, I do not care for the 900 Saw films, spin-offs, the Hostel movies, and all those other ones. These are the illegitimate love child of Mondo and Slasher Films. They show the worst things imaginable, focusing on the worst thing without the suspense of the slasher film. But it's okay because it's just a movie, or so you tell yourself as you wince and twitch through the screening.

Jacopetti claimed he intended to create films that "would play on the big screen whose subject was reality." Franco Prosperi expounded on the claim by stating, "The public was not ready for this kind of truth." Both directors denied staging anything for their films, except for Mondo Cane 2; the first of the sequels they acknowledge contains some staged or recreated footage.

A wee bit of background, Gualtiero Jacopetti was born in Barga, in Northern Tuscany, around Florence. The bundle of terror arrived in the fall of 1919. His had a normal childhood, but with the rise of Mussolini and his new ideology, Fascism, Jacopetti veered to the left. One would think that the future reporter might become inspired by the Dictator, who was himself a former newspaper reporter. But no. During World War II, Jacopetti joined the Italian Resistance. After the war, on the advice of a pal, he began to work as a journalist.

Eventually, he co-founded a briefly influential liberal newsweekly, Cronache or the Chronicle in English. It was the inspiration for the Italian daily l'Espresso. In 1953, Cronache had to shutter production after publishing risque photographs of actress Sophia Loren. Naughty, paparazzi-style pix. Jacopetti authorized publication, and it caused the paper to get charged with manufacturing and trading in pornographic material. Because of those photos, Gualtieo Jacopetti did a year in prison, and Cronache was a memory.

Paolo Cavara started his career in local news and then worked with Franco Prosperi on a film for Italian television about Ceylon, or as we know it today, Sri Lanka. His love of the ocean gave him the reputation as the Italian master of underwater cinematography. I guess Louie Malle is the French master. I think every country must have its own underwater master of cinematography. I wonder if there is a fish tank toy of a camera man in flippers somewhere? I need it!

Paolo meets Gualtieo and introduces him to Franco Prosperi, a writer who worked for Mario Bava on some of his early films, and they're off to the races. The three friends bounce around the planet, landing in the most terrible places on earth. They film. And film. So much film. Months get spent in the editing room. They span the globe for uniqueness, and they get it. It must have been horrible to watch these scenes over and over. Once the film is complete, they travel to Los Angeles to sell the Mondo Cane in America. But the film isn't the only bad omen on the horizon.

Mondo Cane French Poster

While in Los Angeles, they meet an old pal from Rome, a British actress, and part-time sex-pot, Belinda Lee. (She is the girl in the Benny Hill movie, Who Done It?) She made quite a few movies as the hot momma. A hot nurse, she was so hot in the film, Dangerous Exile with Louis Jourdan her hair caught on fire! It did! She left her for an Italian prince, and he left her because of her work. She decides to drive to Las Vegas in a rented convertible with Gaultieo, Franco, and Paolo. She was friendly with Gualtiero, who was a fox magnet and they may have even dated a few times.

Belinda Lee

In this car are three Italians. They have the Auto Strada over there, a highway with no speed limit. Of course, they hit Barstow at 100 mph. The car blows a tire and flips, crumpling into a heap on the side of the road. The three men survive without a scratch, but Ms. Lee gets thrown 65 feet away to die amongst some cactus. The Italian Newspapers jump on this story. It is reported that Belinda Lee was engaged to Gualtiero Jacopetti, which was news to her family and was not reported anywhere else.

Jacopetti and Lee

Coming into the Cannes Film Festival, these guys feel a little guilty and are not as generous with each other as they might have been. They get nominated for the coveted Palme d'Or and lose. They get a shared best picture at the Italian Oscars. And in America, the film is a hit with audiences. (Duh) However, before the release, the catchy tune of its theme song had to be translated into English. The original theme song is found wanting but has a great melody. When armed with new lyrics by British Lyricist and Producer Norman Newell (who scored an international hit with Peter and Gordon's a World Without Love.), the song gets rerecorded for American audiences. The song MORE is nominated for the best song Oscar. It also gets covered by Frank Sinatra!

"Hey choo-choo, did you see this kooky movie?" Frank was rumored to ask. (I made that bit up.)

Franco Prosperi, Gualtiero Jacaopetti, and composer Riz Ortolani look at some film.

Using unused footage from Mondo Cane, some obviously staged naughty stuff, and stock footage that doesn't look like they shot it. The trio rushes out Women of the World. The film gets released while Mondo Cane is in American Theaters to squeeze every bit of blood from Mondo Cane's stone. For English speakers, Peter Ustinov provides the high class voice-over. Critics pan it, but its promise of female nudity makes it a successful venture. They already shot most of it, and how much could those naughty bits cost in1963?

Tensions start to rise as Gaultieo Jacopetti starts to take credit for everything. If you were to ask him, he would claim he manufactured the film, discovered the content, shot the film, created the look, did the writing, and ordered lunch! Paolo Cavara did not dig that. The two had a falling out and would never fall back in.

After Mondo Cane 2, the sequel comes out, and so do the critics. From across the globe, accusations that the three directors perpetrated a sham. The charge is that the entirety of both films is fictional and patently false! Both films were staged and had no business called documentaries. The three partners reconvened and explained that nothing was staged in the first film. But that they had witnessed all of the scenes for the second film but, for reasons never explained, couldn't shoot. So yes, they "staged" a couple of the scenes in the sequel.

Jacopetti takes Prosperi, and they make another film, Africa Addio, or as it is released in America, Africa: Blood and Guts. Following the same style as the other films, they hit Africa as various nations ended Colonial rule and fell into revolution. The film includes all the footage the news doesn't show. Unfortunately, they also show background footage of the making of the Joseph E. Levine production, Zulu. For those who don't know, Zulu is the first film featuring Michael Caine. If you want to fight accusations of creating content in your documentary, probably shooting the making of a fictional movie is not the best move.

Before the film's official release in Italy, more allegations began circulating that one of the sequences was staged for the camera. It depicted the execution of a Congolese rebel. Upon viewing, no one argued that the scene portrayed was an actual event. The charge was not that the actual event happened but that the guy was killed just for the film. The fallout was Gualtiero Jacopetti's arrest for murder. The police stormed the editing room and seized all the film's footage. (You can't buy this kind of public relations!) Jacopetti was acquitted after he and co-director Franco Prosperi produced documents proving they had arrived at the scene just before the execution. They also described their approach to filming: "Slip in, never ask, never pay, never reenact."

"Eventually, Jacopetti's ego is too much, and Prosperi leaves to follow his bliss and write and direct lowish budget genre films. He can't wash the stink of Mondo Cane off and is forced to work under the nom de plume of Frank Shannon. Since he can't quit Mondo, he and Jacopetti continue to work together. Africa: Blood and Guts is another hit for the pair. Even with Roger Ebert calling it racist in his syndicated column. They defended the film by explaining that the Africa of our dreams is gone, and Europe only left chaos behind. Their next movie produced was about American slavery and racism.

Their films, by design, left a bad taste in the viewer's mouth. In the words of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, "You can't handle the truth!"

The three guys survived well into old age, which is surprising from watching their, Man on the Street style footage of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. Talk about putting the cameraman in danger. Whoa! Even with investigations into their practices and if they were involved in instigating these horrible situations for the camera. This photo of Gaultieo Jacopetti is from a courtroom in Rome. The Italian film community reviled Jacopeti and his partners. He was ultimately acquitted and enjoyed a career few have attained, even with the haters. He lived into his 90s and laughed all the way to the bank.

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