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Mario Monicelli, the director of the superb Big Deal on Madonna Street, outpaces the majority of Italian political films with 1963's The Organizer, a highly entertaining account of a strike in a Turin textile plant sometime in the late 1800s. While other committed leftist directors were condemning government corruption in genre thrillers, Monicelli looks back to an earlier age of labor unrest, framing his story in humanist and often humorous terms. With an engaging cast headed by Marcello Mastroianni as a meek intellectual mastermind, The Organizer assembles a marvelous period reconstruction that demonstrates the spirit of the labor movement without resorting to speechmaking or radical gestures.
The underpaid workers that man the mechanized looms at a large textile factory work brutal hours. A day shift is fourteen hours long, with only 30 minutes off for lunch. The exhaustion is such that one man loses his hand in one of the machines, a common occurrence. A small group of naïve worker-friends ask for the work day to end an hour early, and are given the run-around by the fast-talking supervisors -- the plant's owner expects his employees to be silent slaves. When this same group tries to end a day's work early by blowing the steam whistle, the effort becomes a big embarrassment.
Most of the workers are illiterate, and some attend a reading and writing class run by a schoolteacher. Running away from labor trouble (and an arrest warrant), the intellectual organizer Professor Sinigalia hides out in the schoolteacher's loft and volunteers to advise the workers in their strike. He's then hidden in various houses so as to evade the local police. The strike becomes a deadly serious comedy of errors, with Army sympathizers helping to feed the strikers, railroad workers looking the other way so they can steal coal, and the Professor guiding their actions as best he can. The leaders decide to attack a Sicilian worker that crosses the picket line, until they see that the man's family lives in almost subhuman conditions. The Sicilian's daughter befriends a teenage worker who supports his family, and is determined that his younger brother do well in school.
Marcello Mastroianni fits beautifully into this thoughtful seriocomedy. A specialist in meek characters, Mastroianni makes the Professor a dedicated labor activist who is also well aware of his vulnerability. Only when the strike is in full force does he reveal his skill as a radical orator, a firebrand able to energize workers to rebel. A love interest enters when Sinigalia meets Niobe (Annie Girardot), a worker's daughter who has become a fairly classy prostitute. Niobe takes in the hungry and lonesome man, inviting him into her bed only after deciding that he's a good egg. The respected Folco Lulli (of Clouzot's The Wages of Fear) is Pautasso, a giant of a man with a big heart to match. The workers are too frightened to strike until Pautasso comes in on their side. Offering a contrast is the womanizing cynic Raoul (Renato Salvatori), who nevertheless finds himself caught up in the spirit of the strike. The strikingly attractive Rafaella Carrà plays the object of Raoul's affections; she'd appear two years later opposite Frank Sinatra in the wartime thriller Von Ryan's Express.
Monicelli and producer Franco Cristaldi had to go to Yugoslavia to find the fully functioning factory space, with its dozens of looms powered by a steam engine and activated by leather belts from overhead drive shafts. The factory floor looks like an industrial accident waiting to happen. With costumes and settings so rigorously researched, the look and feel of the period is rigorously maintained, from the cheap rooms rented by the workers to the fancy restaurant where Niobe finds her customers.
Something about the Italian culture allows semi-tragic stories to simultaneously function as comedies, without disruptions of tone. These colorful characters can't help but be amusing, even in dire circumstances. Almost every scene carries a sweet irony or a funny character turn, as when poor Pautasso, caught blowing the shop's steam whistle, is forced to say that he had been drinking. When push comes to shove, all a management representative need do to undermine the resolve of the strikers is to invite an insecure leader to a friendly meeting and tell him a pack of lies. Although the outcome is not the one the strikers were hoping for, The Organizer is far from depressing -- the film congratulates the Italian audience of 1963 for their widespread adoption of labor unions.
Criterion's beautiful Blu-ray of The Organizer replicates cameraman Giuseppe Rotunno's masterful B&W images. Criterion's sparse extras are a video introduction by director Mario Monicelli and an essay by the dependable J. Hoberman. The critic discusses the political angles of the picture as well as the innate "Italian-ness" that lies at the core of its appeal. Hoberman quotes director Monicelli on the subject of comedy: "The themes that make one laugh always stem from poverty, hunger, misery, old age, sickness, and death. These are the themes that make Italians laugh, anyway."
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The Organizer Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.