Thursday 11 April 2013

1,001 Films: "Mondo Cane/A Dog's Life" (1962)

The first stirring of a sustainable exploitation market, the dubbed Italian grindhouse breakthrough Mondo Cane adopts a similar tactic to the critically respectable Amores Perros, using documentary footage of man's often supremely dysfunctional relationships with other animals - specifically, the cane (dogs) of the title - to fashion a statement of sorts about the way we live. Given that we're encouraged to gawp at American pet cemeteries, the dogmeat restaurants of Taipei, and some bloody and brutal tribal ceremonies, that statement may be no more coherent or profound than "Cor! Wow! Gadzooks!", but it's a statement, nevertheless. Underpinning it is that fascination with/fear of the unknown - and, in particular, the darker skin tones of the (then underdiscovered) developing world - which would bleed into the Cannibal Holocaust cycle: as a dog is tossed scraps of the pig we've just watched one South American tribe slaughter, our narrator alerts us to the "kind intentions hitherto unsuspected amongst these barbarians". 

A film from a time and a place before political correctness, then: another not atypical line, spoken over a "Ching Chong Chinaman" section of Riz Ortolani's dazzlingly diverse score, would be "The Malaysian housewife is always a difficult client". It's probably not on PETA's all-time Top Ten list, either, climaxing with a lengthy sequence of bullfighting after first subjecting us to gruelling scenes of geese being fattened up to provide foie gras (cor!) and cattle being force-fed beer for strength (wow!), practices mirrored in the way tribeswomen in the Bismarck Archipelago are kept in bamboo cages and plied with tapioca until they've reached the local dictator's preferred level of plumpness (gadzooks). (Hard to say whether our beauty regimes/regimens have got better or worse in the intervening years.)

Yet Mondo Cane, like those cannibal movies, is also capable of a weird, morbid, cruel beauty: it's there in the sequence that finds young chicks being dyed with paint for inclusion in ceremonial Easter eggs ("of the around 100 used in this process, seventy will suffer unfortunate accidents") and again in the segment involving the Calabrian flagellants - now there's a band name waiting to happen - who gouge their legs with broken glass every Good Friday in the name of Jesus Christ Their Saviour, and literally set about painting the town red. It makes particularly tragic the death of a sea turtle washed up on scorching desert sands, and the interactions of a community of Bavarian alcoholics, roughing themselves and each other up through the early hours of the morning.

Like it or not, this is one of those films that reminds us we are all stumbling towards the grave, which presumably, at the time of its first release, set the kids at the drive-in to making out all the more fervently. Too easily distracted to sustain its pessimism, Mondo Cane holds up today as a subversion of all those cute and coyly evasive Disney travelogues that were the rage in the mom-and-pop cinemas of the 1950s and 60s. This is nature red in tooth and claw, and mankind in the raw; despite its editorial lapses and misjudgements, for all its underhand commercial strategies, the film remains brutally honest about the world, its inhabitants and their rituals, in a way that might still make you flinch, or cringe, or chuckle knowingly for its 85-minute duration.

Mondo Cane is available on import DVD via the usual online suspects.

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