Thursday, April 26, 2012

New from Criterion: THE ORGANIZER (1963)


Directed by Mario Monicelli.  Written by Age-Scarpelli (Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli) and Mario Monicelli.  Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori, Annie Girardot, Gabriella Giorgelli, Folco Lulli, Bernard Blier, Francois Perier, Vittorio Sanipoli, Mario Pisu, Kenneth Kove, Giampiero Albertini. (Unrated, 130 mins).

Famed Italian director Mario Monicelli (BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET) was never identified with the Neorealist movement but was occasionally on the periphery, usually as a script contributor on films like THE CHILDREN ARE WATCHING US and BITTER RICE.  But Neorealism's influences can be seen in THE ORGANIZER, released this week in beautiful DVD and Blu-ray editions by Criterion.

THE ORGANIZER (Italian title: I COMPAGNI, or The Comrades) wears its socialist politics on its sleeve with the story of a late 1800s strike at a Turin textile factory.  The workers, worn down by 14-hour work days with one 30-minute lunch, revolt when an aging, exhausted worker loses his hand in a machine accident.  Uneducated and with a good number of them illiterate, their initial attempts at dealing with management--first with the glad-handing, manipulative supervisor (Vittorio Sanipoli) who keeps trying to convince them that he's on their side and he's "one of them," and then with the openly condescending manager (Mario Pisu)--get them nowhere.  But one day, a grubby-looking stranger calling himself Professor Sinigaglia (Marcello Mastroianni) arrives in town and immediately latches himself to their cause.  But who is Sinigaglia?  He has a friend in schoolteacher Mr. DiMeo (Francois Perier), and may be on the run from police in Genoa. He may even be a con artist.  But he's a natural, charismatic leader, and he inspires the factory workers to stand up for themselves and helps them put together a strike from the planning stages to implementation. Their demands?  A 13-hour work day with a one-hour lunch break, and accident insurance  But the factory management, and the old, angry owner Mr. Luigi (Kenneth Kove) aren't about to play ball.

While the subject matter is serious and the finale a grim, powerful gutpunch, complete with a brilliant final shot that's cynical and heartbreaking, Monicelli and co-writers Age-Scarpelli (the name used by the writing team of Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli) spend a lot of time with these characters, allowing us to know them and their backstories (Mastroianni doesn't appear until 30 minutes into the film) and this establishes a feeling of warmth and familiarity with the workers.  And there's a lot of humor as well.  It's often very funny but never slapsticky, and the filmmakers do a magnificent job of balancing the humor with the serious drama in a way that feels natural and compassionate and never stoops to screaming "Message!"  The script got a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination after the film's 1964 US release, losing to the Cary Grant film FATHER GOOSE.  Giuseppe Rotunno's black & white cinematography makes for a stunning HD presentation in 1.85:1.  Extras include a booklet with a short essay by longtime Village Voice critic J. Hoberman and a 2006 introduction by Monicelli, who committed suicide in 2010 at 95 years of age by jumping from the window of his room at a hospital where was being treated for prostate cancer. 

Criterion have done their usual masterful job with this acclaimed-in-its-day but now somewhat forgotten film whose rediscovery in the US seems perfectly timed with today's economic and political concerns.  Highly recommended.

One-sheet for the film's 1964 US release

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