A Brief History of Mondo Cane
WARNING: This 8-disc box set is a compilation of documentaries which contain scenes of extreme graphic violence and other nasty stuff, some of which are described below. If this is a problem for you, please turn back now…you probably won't like this release anyway.
Upon initial viewing of the Mondo Cane Collection, my first thought was: "If intelligent life from another planet ever got a copy of this box set, I really doubt they'd try to contact us."
I mean that in the nicest possible way, of course.
There have always been a few things about my own society that sometimes really bugged me. Strange traditions and occurrences that seem to be devoid of rational thought, but carried out anyway. I'm not talking about Braille on a drive-through cash machine, either. For example, what possesses people to hide eggs on Easter morning, or even wrap Christmas presents every year? What makes us bury our dead in boxes, and place them in the ground? What makes people write DVD reviews until 3:00 in the morning? The fact is, people are irrational creatures; self-centered slaves to tradition and routine. We're all alike in this way, regardless of skin color or genetics. No matter what culture we belong to, we all do things that would be considered strange to another person or group. This is the general theme explored in the original Mondo Cane and the subsequent movies that came after...we're all guilty of doing weird stuff.
Beginning in 1962, Mondo Cane (pronounced "KAH-nay") was released. In short, it turned the camera towards something that had never been explored: the strange, brutal, and funny side of cultures from around the world. The Mondo Cane series was a great blend of satire and horror, hiding behind the guise of a simple documentary. For one thing, the gore and violent acts depicted onscreen are in plain sight…while modern-day audiences have seen gore at this level in most R-rated movies (not to mention the evening news), think of the shockwave this created some 40 years ago! Still, you're bound to feel queasy during one or more of these scenes…those who have a soft spot for animals will most likely be sickened by some of the rituals performed. Those that have a soft spot for humans will most definitely be sickened by most of the other stuff. In short, Mondo Cane isn't for everyone, but it's most definitely about everyone.
Mondo Cane was a very early attempt at making a true "anti-documentary"…that is, a look at life without the polish and glamour. In fact, you could say it practically invented the genre (although other earlier films such as 1950's Wild Rapture must also be considered). Originally conceived by the team of Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti, the series began with the self-titled release of Mondo Cane ("A Dog's Life"). It was originally intended to play out much like an extended newsreel, but it also rests comfortably somewhere between a seedy circus side-show and a bizarre television broadcast from the near future.
Obviously, this movie shocked and surprised audiences who hadn't seen this level of gore and gritty realism before. While Alfred Hitchcock did his share of shocking moviegoers (Psycho was released just two years before), this was a whole new ballgame. Heck, most Americans were just starting to realize that married couples (as depicted on TV) didn't really sleep in separate beds. Some critics tore into Mondo Cane immediately, calling the film "sensationalist" and "exploitive". No kidding. Various individuals have even cried foul on the production in its entirety, going so far as to say certain scenes were rigged (mostly due to the ambiguous voice-overs and sound editing). Actually, some of these scenes didn't take place, but more on that later.
As for me? I don't know if everything is true or not…I wasn't there. However, you'd have to agree that there's some truly astounding footage captured here. Even though we can watch it from the comfort of our own homes, there's an undeniable sense of danger during a large portion of the more violent footage…the crew really risked a great deal by filming some of these events. Either way, the Mondo Cane phenomenon is a pretty fascinating look into the seemingly stranger side of various cultures throughout the globe, including my own. Think of it as a predecessor to "Ripley's Believe it or Not", and it'll be much more engrossing. Unfortunately, the human tendency to beat a dead horse was in full effect. Needless to say, since the Mondo style of films really took off during the 1960's and 1970's, it was milked dry quickly. Regardless of the fad it spawned, the original Mondo Cane remains a stunning collage of wild and unusual events from the far corners of the planet, and remains fascinating despite its age. Regardless of your culture, this was certainly a turning point in modern film-making.
With all that said, this is by no means a perfect set of movies. It's not high art, even when it pretends to be. This is the rare breed of film that has the ability to completely divide its audience in half: you are guaranteed to either love these movies or hate them. As much as I liked these movies (especially the first), there's a few things that bother me about the whole production. Times have obviously changed a lot in the past 40 years, and the beast of 'political correctness' has gotten very large. Most countries have grown more culturally aware, and tolerance for different ways of life is arguably higher than ever. For these reasons, Mondo Cane and the accompanying films found here do nothing to promote cultural equality, or even tolerance (on some levels). Certain groups of people are referred to as 'primitive' or even 'savages', and this lack of objectivity bothered me to a certain degree. Proclaiming yourself to be superior to any other culture is futile…it only makes you look egotistical. While the events (whether staged or real) at least expose the audience to other cultures, the authenticity of the information should always be kept in mind…whether it's all part of the joke or not.
I've got a strong feeling that the majority of footage here is meant to be more satirical than educational, but it's still up to the viewer to decide for themselves. You have been warned---the Mondo Cane Collection will definitely provoke a reaction in the viewer, and that fact alone makes it very interesting to me. In any case, it's a very interesting and strange trip to see how the Mondo phenomenon got started, so it's fortunate that a thorough history of the series is covered in this release. There are five movies contained in this 8-disc collection---all released between 1962 and 1971---as well as some other goodies sure to please fans of the Mondo phenomenon.
Speaking of which, it's time to discover everything contained in this mammoth box set. Obviously, if you've made it this far, you're somewhat interested in what this has to offer. Let me be up front here…this is much more than a generic movie-only box set. There's a good mix of extra stuff too, particularly in the area of the film's impact on the public. The movies themselves are the star attraction, though…some of these are quite hard to come by, especially in their uncut original forms. Thankfully, this box set goes above and beyond the call of duty in nearly every department. The gory details are as follows:
Film Summaries (mild spoliers ahead)
Mondo Cane: This is the granddaddy of them all: the first film in the infamous series. Billed as a documentary, Mondo Cane focuses on obscure and bizarre rituals from around the world. Some scenes include the detailed slaughter of a bull, a pet cemetery, tribal rituals, and a wide variety of fine cuisine (such as dogs and snakes). Mondo Cane is a roller-coaster of a ride, despite the sometimes casual nature in which the images are presented. At times shocking, this movie also does a good job of showing the unusual aspects of many cultures, including the good ol' USA. Just when you thought tribal rituals seemed strange, another scene shows the royal treatment given to dead pets of rich Americans. While at times shocking, Mondo Cane is quite underrated for the humor found within. It's much closer to a black comedy as a whole, but our distance from these actual events allows us to react differently. Some of these scenes will make you stare in amazement or digust, others will make you chuckle, and some will make you examine your own strange habits and traditions. By far, the original Mondo Cane remains the most watchable of the films in this set, and will stay in your head for a long, long time.
Women of the World: This film examines women from different cultures in unusual and often challenging situations. Through women such as mothers of babies affected by thalidomide and Polynesian dancers, Women of the World illustrates the simultaneous glorification and objectification of women. This was released just one year after the original Mondo Cane, and stands as a fairly unique follow-up to the original concept. It's not exactly a date movie (then again, maybe it is in some cultures). As a whole, Women of the World remains a strange, sometimes tongue-in-cheek 'tribute' to the female of the species.
Mondo Cane 2: This brilliantly-titled film continues where the original left off. It features further documentation of extreme rituals involving both people and animals, including sex clubs and vivisection. If you liked the first one, this one will be right up your dark alley. One scene even depicts the suicide of a monk who is set on fire. However, remember when I said that not everything really took place? It is later revealed that this event was staged, but was a re-creation of the actual event which they could not be present for. The original suicide has become quite infamous, with photos popping up in many places over the years (even on the cover of Rage Against the Machine's 1992 debut album). To be honest, I felt a little cheated upon learning this information. Overall, this production was not as fresh as the original---and that's saying something)---but this is mainly because we've seen it before. Comprised of leftover footage (shot during the original's filming) as well as a good amount of new footage, Mondo Cane 2 is still a fascinating spectacle to behold.
Africa Addio (English version): This very controversial film documents Africa during its liberation from Western colonialism. This film graphically captures the widespread violence of the period, including numerous massacres and other destruction of people and wildlife. There are also scenes that document the racial violence of certain areas, as blacks and white practically take turns killing each other. One scene even specifically captures the dangers faced by the crew: an angry soldier threatens them while filming from inside a car, and breaks the windshield. One is badly cut, and the crew is dragged out in the middle of the mob. Thankfully, upon viewing of their passports, they are let go…mainly because they were not "whites", but Italian. It's pretty tough to watch in spots, but fascinating nonetheless.
Addio Zio Tom (English version): Perhaps the most shocking of the series, this fictional film tackles the sensitive subject of the slave trade. Two documentary filmmakers return in time to the American South during the Civil War to capture the experience of the slaves. Be warned: this film explicitly details the physical and psychological torture of the people who were enslaved. Compared to the others in the set this film really sticks out…mostly from the more obvious satirical nature of the scenes. This is probably the hardest to stomach overall, as the the satire is at its most scathing here. Whereas most of the other films hopped around, this remains focused on one target, and the visuals are especially striking. In any case, it's not easy to take this all in during one sitting…it was banned in several countries for obvious reasons. Still, this is pretty mind-bending stuff (especially the slightly more daring Dirctor's Cut, discussed later), and should be seen at least once.
The Godfathers of Mondo: Call it "the bonus disc". This is an original documentary about creators Jacopetti and Prosperi, and includes in-depth interviews and never-released footage (as well as clips from the movies, of course). This a a very welcome inclusion, and really helps anchor the films behind some good, solid history lessons. I'd even go so far as to say that this could very well be the main selling point of the box set. It covers a great deal of ground, and it's especially nice to hear from some of the original crew themselves. I especially liked a section detailing the famous musical theme of the original Mondo Cane, entitled "More". This theme (as well as most of the others) was penned by composer Riz Ortolani, who has also written the music for other films such as the infamous Cannibal Holocaust. Apparently, it was not only conceived spontaneously, but was "borrowed" by many popular American musical artists of the time period (including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, and Duke Ellington, among many others). Needless to say, it was very popular…it even got nominated for an Oscar, but unfortunately did not win.
Another refreshing part of thie Godfathers of Mondo documentary was the complete honesty of the original directors. In one segment, co-director Gualtiero Jacopetti criticizes Mondo Cane 2, and admits to its creation for less-than-artistic purposes. He admits that the magic of the original is not as evident (and even denounces it completely from his life's work!), but Mondo Cane 2 is still presented for the sake of history. Failure or not, it's nice to see director's admit their mistakes in hindsight. It's very gratifying, really.
By the way, I know these only add up to six discs. Also included on separate discs are the original Director's Cuts of Africa Addio and Addio Zio Tom (translated to Goodbye Africa and Goodbye Uncle Tom respectively). I'm not sure of the availability of these two prior to this release, but I'm sure they're much harder to find than the English versions. Each of these two runs about 15 minutes longer than the original version, and features slightly more violence and/or nudity (for those keeping score at home). In addition to the new footage, several scenes are placed in a different order, creating an entirely new feel to the production. In both cases, I'd personally recommend the Director's Cuts over the English versions, but the choice is yours. These are both welcome inclusions into the set. It could be argued that these belong in the place of the Enlglish versions, but I'm glad we get both…comparing the two versions of each showed a world of difference.
Overall, this collection is a very thorough effort…a lot of time and care was put into this release, and it really shows. Not only do you get the movies themselves (including the two alternate versions), but the bonus disc as well (which really takes it up a few notches). However, there's much more to a truly great DVD release than the movies themselves. Let's move on to the next section, and see how the Mondo Cane Collection measures up.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Presentation:
The video quality found here is fantastic. The two Mondo Cane films and Women of the World are presented in their original full-frame (1.33:1) aspect ratios, the remaining films are preserved in their original widescreen (2.35:1). The documentary disc is filmed in 1.85:1 widescreen, a welcome choice. Regardless of which compositional choice you prefer, the image quality itself is quite stunning, showing very little dirt or scratches. Colors appear very clean and bright (although still somewhat muted when compared to modern American movies), and really pop off the screen when needed. The widescreen compositions look particularly striking, and showcase the global images very well. Even during the ugliest of scenes found here, you can't help but appreciate the quality of the picture, even if you don't want to. On the down side, I noticed a few small instances of edge enhancement, but I doubt it'll distract the viewer from what's on the screen. Overall, this is an excellent job by Blue Underground, and these movies will thankfully be preserved for future generations to wonder what the heck was wrong with us.
The audio was pretty standard here, but that's due to the somewhat aged source elements. This is a largely mono affair, but is still cleaned up nicely. The language on many of these films is English, although several give you the option of the original Italian with English subtitles. The director's cuts of Africa Addio and Addio Zio Tom were presented only in Italian with English subtitles…I would have preferred a more consistent audio presentation, but I'll take what I can get. One thing I did notice was the differences in the languages between the two…in some cases, the subtitles don't match up to the original Italian, sometimes changing the overall effect of a scene (strangely, the English version occasionally provides more detail as well). For example, the previously mentioned scene where the crew is threatened by the mob in Africa Addio suffers a bit. The English version clues us in to their lives being saved by their passports, while the Italian version only tells us that they were "saved by a miracle which was later reported in the local paper." This is very strange indeed…while I didn't listen to both tracks in their entirety for the films that offer a choice, I can't help but wonder how this affected other scenes as well. In any case, the audio itself is very good, and everything is understood clearly…that's what really counts.
As mentioned before, the extras provide a nice mix of things, especially for the original release of Mondo Cane. Included on the first disc alone are Text/Photo Galleries, Still and Poster Galleries, Benito Frattari's Location Stills, Trailers & TV Spots, and even Behind-The-Scenes 8mm Footage (with audio commentary by Assistant Director Giampaolo Lomi). Also present in this collection is the Complete U.S. Press Book, included as a DVD-Rom supplement. I haven't had the chance to check this feature out yet, but I'm sure it's a fascinating read. As a whole, while the extras seem a little unbalanced between the discs, the first film in the series was bound to be weighted more heavily. Each of these extras are valuable...the photo galleries were very interesting, and the poster art was also a nice inclusion. In any case, the first disc along is mighty satisfying, and should be a real experience for any fan of the Mondo phenomenon. The other discs themselves are a little lighter, but all at least include Trailers and TV Spots. And of course, the Director's Cuts of Africa Addio and Addio Zio Tom could be considered extras in themselves.
Overall, I was happy that so much of the marketing and social impact was covered here...it's very intesting to see how these films were sold to the general public, and how the reacted to them. In particular, the trailers were especially neat to see...the production did seem like a glorified three-ring circus, and these trailers stand as small time capsules, revealing just how much things have changed since the original releases. If you really think about it, the trailer for the original Mondo Cane is nearly as important as the film itself. Also, I can't forget to mention the Godfathers of Mondo documentary one more time. It runs for approximately 90 minutes, and is a perfect companion piece to the movies themselves. All things considered, this is a very nice set of extras, and really give Mondo fans a good reason to pick this box set up. You won't be disappointed!
Menu Design & Presentation:
Expecting little more than the typical static menus, these really were a pleasant surprise. Each disc had animated menus (or at least animated transitions) and featured music cues in the background. The original Mondo Cane menu was especially nice, with a "newsreel"-type feel to it, with an appropriate-sounding voice-over playing behind it. These all were a nice touch, and a refreshing change from the blandness of the typical DVD menu (especially for a smaller company).
The packaging itself is very nice as well...each disc gets its own super-slim case (similar in style to the Family Guy box sets). Each of these cases features nice collage-style covers...interior artwork and chapter listings can be seen through the clear cases. Everything is housed in a thin plastic box that has a very glossy finish (similar in style to the Deep Space Nine outer box, or even the new Fargo: Specical Edition slip-case). Hopefully, it'll hold up, but the outer box could have been a little sturdier. Also, these are individually numbered. Mine was #07347, so it looks as if these won't last long. Nice presentation all around, though.
Packaging Update: Blue Underground is issuing replacement outer boxes for anyone who recieved a damaged copy. Apparently, the brittleness of the box was due to the shrinkwrapping process used. If you need a replacement, go to their Contact page here. Don't forget to include your mailing address!
The extras provided offer a great insight into the production, execution, and public reaction of these films, and really cover a lot of ground. I can't really think of much else they could have added here, save for a commentary or two (even in text form). However, the documentary on Disc 8 is nearly enough by itself, and is perhaps one of the only DVD supplements of its length that I'd definitely watch again. This was an excellent overall effort from Blue Underground, and is a must-have for true fans of this cultural phenomenon. I'm not sure if these films will be available separately (although it takes a special kind of weirdo to really appreciate everything found here), but Discs 1 and 8 are most definitely the highlights of this super-sized box set. It's a lot to take in, but it's a very engrossing experience.
Boy, I was really on the fence with this one at first. I found the majority of the Mondo Cane Collection to be a highly entertaining trip, but some aspects of the production still bothered me a little. In the long run, I think the positives far outweigh the negatives, and it's obvious that the DVD quality is excellent. For those who have never seen any of these films before: you are warned. Mondo Cane is not for everyone. As for this reviewer? I'm going to consider this box set Recommended…like it or not, the Mondo Cane phenomenon was a major movement in modern film, spawning countless imitators over the years. There's a lot of folks out there that hate these films with a passion, but there's also a select few weirdos that can appreciate the odd charm of the Mondo series. I'd highly doubt you'll find this for rent at Blockbuster, but I'd suggest that mildly interested parties rent or borrow a copy. It's a little expensive, but the overall quality of this release makes it worth the price of admission. Even if you don't appreciate the spectacle of Mondo Cane, you can't deny the history it's made.
If anything else, you'll never think of this planet the same way again.
Randy Miller III is a part-time cartooning instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.