The Organizer (Criterion)

Reviewer: Philip M Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): *** 1/2

There’s a key piece of editing about halfway into The Organizer, Mario Monicelli’s 1963 film about a worker’s strike in late 1800s Turin. A factory worker has travelled to the outskirts of town to bring funds to a family living below poverty conditions. The funds are to show solidarity because the family’s breadwinner has been jailed due to issues stemming from the strike. While making the rounds of the family’s dirt-floored shanty, the factory worker opens a wooden flap, revealing a grinning, barefoot toddler squatting on the ground. The film then cuts to a group of society women preening in their sparkling white gowns during a social function.

The cut from dirty privation to neatly coiffed privilege is jarring and a bit obvious, but it points to just how much The Organizer wears its big bleeding heart on its sleeve. This is a workers’ film, set during the birth throes of the Industrial Revolution, and makes no attempt to be impartial. Here the industrialists are the clear-cut bad guys, lording it over the exhausted, uneducated employees. “The bastards treat us like animals,” a nameless worker grumbles. “It’s worse than prison.”

The film opens with a quiet vignette. One of the younger factory employees, Omero (Franco Ciolli), awakens at 5:30 in his clothesline-strewn tenement home. After a hurried exchange with his mother, he leaves his life of quiet destitution to go work a fourteen hour day. The factory is depicted as a blur of wheels, pulleys, looms, and the other machinery that dwarfs and obscures the human beings whose sweat powers it. It’s a grim portrait of industrialization, somewhere between the extremes of Metropolis’s robotic, Moloch-worshipping hell and Modern Time’s absurd depiction of men-as-machines.

Soon, one of the employees in the factory loses his arm and the rest of the workers have to decide what to do in the face of an indifferent management. Led by the rotund, cranky Pautasso (the great character actor Folco Lulli), the workers arrive at the rather modest goal of getting an hour shaved off of their workday. However, their attempts to unite against their oppressors prove sloppy until a wayward, disgraced professor, Sinigaglia (Marcello Mastroianni) stumbles into town and takes up the mantle of their cause (and the titular role). The rest of the film details the love-hate relationship that develops between Sinigaglia and his newfound flock and their lost cause.

 

Monicelli’s oeuvre consists mainly of comedies, specifically that strange brand of comedy known as the commedia all’italia, a mix of vulgarity, harsh realities, humanism, and an often pitch-black humor. The Criterion disc for The Organizer contains a highly recommended introduction by Monicelli (recorded before his death in 2010) detailing his sensibilities and reasons for making the films. Monicelli was an unapologetic Communist Marxist in love with stories of heroic futility and unhappy endings. The tragic plight of the workers in The Organizer is infused with every kind of humor – from bawdy to bodily, dry to broad. Monicelli is careful never to laugh too much at his characters. It’s clear he respects and adores them, all the while marching them toward a Pyrrhic finale.

 

The film owes much of its charm to its ensemble cast. Although top-billed, Mastroianni is often secondary to Lulli’s stubborn Pautasso and an impressive international cast that includes Bernard Blier and the ravishing Annie Girardot. Mastroianni’s Professor Sinigaglia is a singular creation, looking more like a Dr Suess-envisioned hobo than a fearless leader. Though given to rousing speechifying, he never germinates into a rallying hero and is often portrayed as more of a laconic schemer. He’s a hungry opportunist, dedicated to his philosophy but also looking for a bit of a handout. In one of his first scenes, he stalks a sandwich left in an empty meeting hall by a worker like a bird of prey before descending upon it, only to be interrupted by the worker’s return to claim the sandwich. After an awkward, wordless exchange, he concedes the food to its rightful owner. It’s a great moment and says more about the professor than any grandiose speech.

The Organizer is an earnest film, too heartfelt to be pure agitprop. The film bombed on its release due to its being branded a “social issue film,” but Monicelli stays true to his comedic sensibilities, eschewing any sermonic intentions that might have been implicit in the Oscar-nominated script. The cinematography – by the legendary Giuseppe Rotunno (The Leopard) – is elegant, full of effortless tracking shots and wide compositions that lend an epic air to the small story. In his introduction, Monicelli says that he “wanted the viewers to feel the fatigue.” It’s not a backhanded compliment to say that he succeeds. His proletariat tale, however comic, instills an empathetic weariness at the unfairness of the world order.

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