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.
Italy’s first capital after the Risorgimento ended in the 1870s, Turin was in the midst of rapid industrialization during the period of The Organizer, although the film unfolds some years before the growth of the industry that made the city Italy’s Detroit, and a quarter century in advance of the great strikes and occupations of 1920 that so influenced Gramsci. It’s a grim place. Workers rise at 5:30 a.m. to trudge from their overcrowded hovels or prisonlike apartment blocks toward the massive textile factory that squats at their world’s center. As in Metropolis (1927), men exist to serve their machines—the roaring, relentless signifiers of the brutal, fourteen-hour, dawn-to-dusk regime that chews up the workers, literally, in one case.
Populating his densely inhabited film with actual workers, Monicelli was attempting, three years before The Battle of Algiers (1966), to create a sort of neorealist period piece; using a strategy that would subsequently be seen in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Organizer opens with a montage of historical photographs that skillfully segues into contemporary facsimiles. Throughout, Rotunno’s black-and-white cinematography makes evocative use of flat lighting and gray skies to accentuate the sense of soot and smoke. (Because little was left of nineteenth-century Turin, the movie was actually shot in the nearby Piedmontese cities of Cuneo, Fasano, and Savigliano, with the vast factory interior filmed in Zagreb, Yugoslavia.) “The past is the present, and the spectator feels as if the film had actually been made in 1895,” wrote Dwight Macdonald, another man of the thirties, who, as Esquire’s film critic, gave The Organizer its best U.S. notice. “The camera work has the bleak, grainy quality of photographs by Jacob Riis,” he noted, a comparison to the author of How the Other Half Lives that was also made by New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther, who in turn also invoked the novels of Émile Zola (“It has the same feeling for the underprivileged”).
Gathering in the hospital where their maimed comrade has been taken, the largely illiterate workers spontaneously form a committee and plan a job action that proves to be an abject failure. Then, suddenly, half an hour into the movie, a most unlikely messiah hops off the freight train of history and raps at a window of the fetid basement where the workers doze through their evening literacy classes. Indelibly played by Marcello Mastroianni, Professor Giuseppe Sinigaglia is a Chaplinesque conspirator, a hobo in a battered hat and a greasy, threadbare cloak, a stooped fugitive on the run from the police in Milan. In a movie where neither Karl Marx nor any of Italy’s working-class heroes are ever mentioned, Mastroianni’s professor is a stunningly perverse embodiment of revolutionary hope.
At once shabby and genteel, timid and brash, idealistic and clumsy, practical and absentminded, this furtively scuttling, hopelessly myopic intellectual may be a professional agitatore, but—part holy fool, part wily picaro—he is hardly the positive hero of a Soviet proletarian drama. (For one thing, he’s no stoic—in one quintessential Monicelli moment, the famished fugitive greedily seizes a sandwich that a worker has left behind and then hands it back, abashed, when the man returns to retrieve it.) And though he has apparently betrayed his class—and also, it would seem, abandoned his family—the proles are not always appreciative of his sacrifice. Suspicious of their would-be organizer, they are frequently divided among themselves, easily intimidated, and readily bamboozled by their bosses.
In some respects, The Organizer is a comedy of uneven development. More stubborn, driven, and successfully manipulative than he initially appears, the professor matures as an organizer, swaying a crowd with his hitherto unsuspected oratorical gifts—if not the power of his logic or his interpersonal savvy. “Why the long faces?” he cries, bursting into the home of a worker accidentally killed during a demonstration and brandishing a newspaper: thanks to the dead man’s martyrdom, the public is now on their side. The mourners are singularly unimpressed.
While the movie’s American title puts the emphasis on the star, the original Italian title stresses a sense of solidarity. So does the movie itself, which is essentially an ensemble piece. “Monicelli has integrated the star into the drama, counterpointing him against the others instead of reducing them to background music,” Macdonald noted. “For considerable periods, we don’t see the organizer at all, and when he does reappear—often materializing with a magical yet quite logical opportuneness—[he is] first among equals, rather than the usual star-dictator.” Recurring deflationary bits of business throughout suggest the futility of individual action: one irate worker confronts his boss, pulls out his knife, and can’t open the clasp; another makes a fiery speech in a dialect that his comrades don’t understand.
Toward the end, Monicelli switches gears, as, sought by the authorities and rejected by those he would lead, the professor lies low, taken in by a good-hearted prostitute (Annie Girardot, the co-pro’s requisite French star). Abruptly, he emerges from hiding to address a mass meeting and, coming into his own as an orator, inspires the workers to occupy the factory. Still, The Organizer has no happy ending. The strikers march singing through the streets as the militia is mobilized; the confused soldiers open fire, an innocent is killed, and the strike is broken. The professor is berated by the workers he led, his glasses are knocked from his face, and he begins searching for them on the ground—a startling metaphor.
And yet, although the movie closes with a long shot of the defeated workers reentering their factory prison, including a child forced to take his older brother’s place at the machines, the mood is not exactly unhappy. The gates close, yet minds have been opened. The Organizer is a historical comedy that demonstrates a very Gramscian formulation (pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will) and a very popular one, to take another Monicelli title: Viva Italia!
J. Hoberman thanks Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan and Dave Kehr for their help in scaling Mount Monicelli.