Monday, June 25, 2018

Mario Monicelli | I compagni (The Organizer)

by Douglas Messerli

Mario Monicelli, Age & Scarpelli (writers), Mario Monicelli (director) I compagni (The Organizer) / 1963, USA 1964

Italian director Mario Monicelli’s I compagni (The Comrades, translated into English as The Organizer) is a fairly realist fantasy that is beautiful to watch, at times comic and heart-warming and at other times painfully touching. Yet ultimately this film is utterly frustrating, for at its heart it is a portrait of stasis. Nothing truly changes in this work despite all the hoopla of its beautifully portrayed characters. If the film begins with a young teenage boy, Omero (Franco Ciolli) forced to abandon his bed at 5:00 a.m. in order to join the others of this Turin community in their daily trek to the giant textile plant where nearly all of these poor men and women work from 5:30 to 8:30 each evening, 14-hour days with only a short break for lunch or “requested” bathroom breaks, the film ends with the same trudge to work, after Omero’s death from a police shooting to quell the workers’ protest, with his younger brother—whom Omero has become determined to protect and help him get an education so that we would be free from such brutal employment—now at the rear. His family needs his employment if they are to survive.
     Soon after Monicelli’s camera follows this 19th century workers to their factory, we see them briefly enjoying their lunch before being called back into their endless labor. By the end of the day they have all become so exhausted that one of their fellow workers nearly falls to sleep, mauling his hand in a machine. 
     A group of workers, the heavyweight Pautasso (Folco Lulli), Martinetti (Bernard Blier), and the tough woman worker Cesarini (Elvira Tonelli) form a committee to argue against their 14-hour work day, only to be entirely ignored with the Dickensian-like management force who not only ignore their protests but hurry off to their own leisurely lunches.
       Later, a bit as in the later earlier American musical The Pajama Game they plan a walk-out an hour earlier that their normal quitting time. One of their group sneaks away to set off the whistle, while the others prepare to leave the moment they hear it. But a stray dog betrays him, and despite having released the call to quit work, factory owners not only pull him out of hiding, but threaten their employees who might leave with firing; they remain until the regular closing hour.
     The point, of course, is that these mostly illiterate and disorganized workers will never succeed given their inability to work out logical alternatives; all they can comprehend is they have feed their families and themselves. Even their attempts to educated themselves in afterwork school lessons they are too tired to take in their lessons. At one point, asked to tally up a vote, Omero himself admits that he cannot read. Others have given their vote only with an X.
       Into this comic-tragedy Professor Sinigaglia (Marcello Mastroianni), evidently a labor agitator on the run from police in Milan, suddenly appears. Unlike the experienced labor leader Reuben Warshosky of the 1979 drama, Norma Rae, Sinigaglia is more like a Fellinesque-like clown, a man, as J. Hoberman describes him, like: “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.”
      He is also hungry, in every sense of that word. Sharing a bed on the floor of the local teacher's hovel, he awakens to wake up the workers as well, using his skills as a rhetorician to convince them that they have made all of the wrong decisions. But when they leave for the night, one worker forgetting his sandwich, the would-be “organizer” eyes the sandwich, grabbing it up with a desire other films might have expressed for a beautiful leading-lady (that comes later). When the worker returns to reclaim his trophy, Sinigaglia woefully gives it up, truly becoming another version of Chaplin’s Tramp. Later, he eyes the window of a local chocolatier and restauranteur. He’s clearly starved, even more than these poor provincials, for food and companionship.
      Nonetheless, he engages the community through words, convincing them to go on strike, but first buying up food and supplies on credit for the long period he knows it will take. Of course, in doing so, these peasants, are quite literally selling away their lives. To survive the long period, some of their group highjack a coal car of a train, tossing the precious commodity up to the waiting women and men, who scoop them up in order to warm their cottages. Even when a local man is killed, Sinigaglia claims it has only helped their cause, that their case is now national news. As if taken from today’s papers, when the company attempts to hire outsiders from another city to replace their workers, the “comrades” threaten them and force them to disperse, although some actually do make it into the textile mill.
       Finally, when Sinigaglia attempts to reenergize his base by encouraging them to march in protest, they are, this time, met by the police, when the young boy Omero is killed. As if we are hit by a sudden jolt of reality, the viewer can now only see the total futility of this series of events, both comic and dramatic. We can only recognize La commedia è finita!
       Hoberman argues that “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 [Antonio Gransci was the founder of the Italian Communist Party] formulation (pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will) and a very popular one, to take another Monicelli title: Viva Italia!”
       I wish I could see it that way. But the fact that no change has been possible, even if we know that changes in labor laws always come in small increments, and certainly did not happen overnight in Italy or even the US, I can only see the film today as confirming the gradual erasement of labor rights across the world. Italy may well be alive today (I love the country) but can only perceive at how the Right now controls it. Just as in the US, immigrant workers are daily being turned away. Gradual change has seemed to be replaced by endless reversals. Perhaps the honestly of this film is precisely Monicelli’s achievement. Things in 1963 were perhaps not that completely different from the Risorgimento-era this movie presents or are not so totally different from today in the US. And we all know what has become of the Turin—auto workers struck the Fiat plants in that city the year before this film—which soon after the events in this film grew into Italy’s version of Detroit, and what happened to America’s own city of that name. People are still very hungry, even if our government does not wish to truly investigate that fact, despite the United Nations’ demands that we do; and they will steal even from those poorer than them in order to survive.  

Los Angeles, June 25, 2018

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