The Long, Inescapable Shadow of ‘Mondo Cane’

I grew up in the Rotten.com days. For the morbid adolescent, crime scene photos and grisly images of freak accidents were a click away. Now defunct, the site traded in the bizarre, lifting the beaded curtain to that shadowy forbidden room at the video store– though  the treasures to be found were far darker than skin flicks. The founder, who goes by the alias Soylent, defended the site as a historical and cultural document that doesn’t show you anything that you can’t find in everyday life. “If you watch the Discovery Channel or the Learning Channel, you see pictures of dead bodies, cadavers of famous people,” he told Salon. “Horrors are sprinkled throughout life, and I see no problem with concentrating them.” Today, as we navigate the horrors of the current landscape while the line of delineation between the real and the unreal blurs more with every tweet, Mondo Cane and the documentary subgenre it solidified remain an evergreen latchkey to the media landscape of their own time and today.

After the collective loss of innocence with JFK’s assassination, the 1960s were a Wild West of socio-political upheaval. While films like Night of the Living Dead leaned into and refracted the societal mayhem through human and inhuman beasts, truth is stranger than fiction; there emerged another type of cinema to show us how monstrous and complicit we were (and are) in our own downfall. Far more accusatory than the zombie movie that still contains the comforting barrier of fantasy, the Mondo film both appeases and weaponizes the act of seeing and, through it, makes monsters of us all.

A caveat before adding these movies to your watchlist: all contain gruesome, unblinking footage of animal slaughter, visceral human error, and universal suffering. There’s no “safe” time stamp that can be given to shield any viewer from potentially offensive imagery. From the moment you hit “play,” you’ll be subjected to footage tailor-engineered to get a reaction out of you. You’ve been warned.

The sick-making of Rotten.com, the ever-watching eye of reality TV, and the pseudo-voyeuristic exoticizing photography of National Geographic and the othering that it causes can all be traced back to Mondo Cane. The treatment of foreign cultures as circus sideshows goes back leagues further, but in 1962, Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi and Paolo Cavara codified the template proper as we know it now. Mondo Cane is a festival of the macabre and the curious, whose very structure perverts the traditional genre trends (either quietly observing its subjects or participating by interview) that came before it.

The film opens with a dog being dragged by its leash alongside a kennel full of agitated canines. A card reads, “All the scenes you see in this film are true and taken only from real life. If often they are shocking, it is because there are many shocking things in this world. Besides, the duty of the chronicler is not to sweeten the truth but to report it objectively.” The handler shoves the dog into the kennel, and it promptly squeals as the other dogs descend upon it. It’s a dog’s world.

The slaughter of animals continues; it can be simply for feeding a village after fasting (as a tribe does in New Guinea), it can be for elite dining of white upper classes in New York, it can be for delicacies in Thailand, or even as a ritual to ensure a military batallion’s honor (as the Gurkhas do for their colonizing British officers). These images are all intermixed to muddy the waters between “sophisticated” western culture and those they regard with revulsion as “savage,” becoming as coagulated as the blood-soaked mud of a Barcelona bullfighting arena.

The elements of Jacopetti/Prosperi’s film constitute what we now call shock doc material: the unorthodox rituals of cultures around the world, the juxtaposition of foul imagery with euphoric or lighthearted music, a shared mistreatment of animals across societies of all kinds, and supported by colonialist attitudes of white supremacy. Presented in the epic structure of confrontational “authenticity,” the film and its tag-along sequel forged a blueprint to be mimicked and perverted by imitators down the line.

The controversy of the Cane lies not in the text, but in its ambiguity. Because the filmmakers’ posture towards the subject matter is occluded, it’s problematic for many. Mark Goodall’s Sweet and Savage: The World through the Mondo Film Lens highlights the confusion with an excerpt from Judith Crist’s Mondo Cane review for the American Herald Tribune: “Intelligent and repellent…cultured and coarse…its artistic aspirations brought low by its vulgar venality, its fascinating truths obscured by prurient practices.” This problematization of films that don’t spoon-feed their stance to the viewer can be more easily seen on the fiction side of the arena; how many movie reviews out there hypothesize that a bad person getting away with a bad thing is a morally bankrupt flaw on the part of the storyteller?

At times, the narrator holds the viewer’s hand and draws comparisons from one set of cultural footage to another. But often, suggestion is delivered through editing; the “shock cut,” as Godall calls it, abruptly moves from the sight of the bouncing bosom of an American woman waving at sailors to the nipple of a tribal New Guinea woman as she suckles a baby pig following the death of her child. As such, and as with satire, the potential for conflicting interpretation is high; one viewer may see a juxtaposition of two visibly different but thematically identical cultures, and another will watch the same footage and see a reckless perpetuation of ethnic/gender stereotypes. This is where the power of Mondo lies– life experience factors heavily into your read on the same imagery that fellow moviegoers gaze upon. All of cinema works like this, which is why there are thousands of reviews with thousands of unique takes on a single David Lynch film.

Jacopetti (in name only, he claims) and Prosperi continue to flog the horse with Mondo Cane 2 (comprised largely of spare footage from the first film), which begins similarly to the first, albeit with a bigger middle finger to British censors: the opening scene shows dogs undergoing surgical procedures at a London clinic to sever their vocal cords so that the animals’ howls won’t disturb the surgeons during later experiments. The narrator quips, “We put this scene at the beginning of the film so that the British censors can, if they think fit, use their surgeon scalpel here. With a clean cut here, they can amputate this scene without making the dogs– or our producers– howl.” It’s a teenager’s clapback highlighting the contentious relationship Mondo documentarians have with the powers that be and the sensible masses they represent. They lean into this with a subsequent scene showing a fashion show in Italy in which the model’ frocks match the coats of the dogs accompanying them down the runway. The dogs are often dragged down the walk by the model– are darker-skinned countries the only ones who can and do mistreat animals? For a white 1960s audience, it’s an eye-opening sight.

Before the filmmakers are hailed as progressive heroes, however, it should be noted that the narrator still treats foreign cultures with a curiosity that belies an astounding lack of self-awareness, considering the equally bizarre American images that follow. Aboriginal reverence for animals is treated as jarring and strange, while New York socialites who bejewel their pets and bury them in special cemeteries are positioned by narration and music as en vogue.

Where Mondo Cane sticks largely with images of the dying and the bones of the long-dead, the sequel ups the ante with scenes  of a civilian Buddhist uprising against South Vietnamese soldiers, with bloody carnage accompanying frantic shots of the beaten and stabbed only moments before the camera arrives. A monk self-immolates in protest, his still-writhing body engulfed with flames in a shot that refuses to blink for nearly a full minute. It’s a lurid precursor to the spectacle of mortality in the Faces of Death series that satisfied a generation of morbid youths via hand-me-down VHS tapes. 

Mondo Cane and its sequel are, as progenitors in the genre, the two most artistically ambitious films of their ilk, with the budget and the sense of creative purpose to achieve anything close to what we consider to be cinematic art. It’s these two films that laid the foundation for shockumentaries to follow, for better or for worse. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the genre became exponentially extreme, moving from arthouse-aimed meditations on the human condition to pure thrill-seeking and cash-grabbing. Brutes and Savages (1978), Sweet and Savage (1983), and Mondo Cane 2000 (1988) all follow the formula, with none of the quiet reflection to be seen in their more capable genre counterparts (and beyond, as with Werner Herzog). Progenitor Jacopetti abhors it. “I reprove the vulgarity of what was produced. Mondo Cane shows human situations, reality, there’s never a speculation,” he tells Mark Goodall, “In trying to copy Mondo Cane despicable things have been produced which in the process have also damaged the first and only one (mine).” 

By the time Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video (1979) came out, the shock doc had become a parody of itself; National Lampoon scribe Michael O’Donoghue praises and interrogates mondo cinema through tame homage. After a cheeky pre-credit warning telling viewers to not allow children viewers to leave the room (“If they are sleeping, wake them up, slap them. Give them hot coffee”), an opening sequence– “Swimming Club for Cats”–  features cats tossed into a swimming pool and allowed to swim to safety. Even as satire, none of it can be as intense and disturbing as the material it spoofs, which makes it relatively safe viewing for those who want to dip a toe into the mondo waters while still highlighting the trash cinema space that mondo innately occupies. 

Ultimately, the modern translation of mondo cinema and its imitators stands upon the shoulders of media criticism itself. Any Takashi Miike, Lynne Ramsey, or Michael Haneke devotee can testify that what the audience reads from a text is not always what the storyteller intends to transmit. In an era when the old (white, patriarchal) standards are being torn asunder and evolving, people across spectrums are carrying their own experience-founded interpretations into their evaluations of the media they consume. The most bitter pill to swallow is that, if you can support your evaluation with examples from the text capably enough that another person can acknowledge the argument (even if they disagree), then the analysis is valid. Mondo film, and Mondo Cane in particular, is a strong critical litmus test; how you respond to a film that doesn’t readily affirm or condemn the moral caliber of its text can clue you into your orientation in critical thinking. Regardless of what Jacopetti and Prosperi set out to create, the film now belongs to us all, ready for dissection by virtue of the creator, the time, the presentation, and how your life informs your digestion of that story. Rotten. com may be dead and buried, but the re-animation of old texts live on through analysis. In a sense, all critics are cannibals.

Mondo Cane is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

Anya Stanley is a film critic, author, and a columnist at 'Fangoria' Magazine. Her chapter on the irreligious work of H.P. Lovecraft was published last year in 'Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion, and Worship in the Horror Film' by House of Leaves Publishing. Further work can be found at her website www.anyawrites.com and @BookishPlinko on Twitter.

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