"This film would really piss off PETA."
“All the Scenes You Will See In This Film Are True and Taken Only From Life. If Often They Are Shocking It Is Because There Are Many Astounding, Even Unbelievable Things In This World.”
This is the first thing that the audience reads at the start of the original "shockumentary". This incendiary and controversial film is exactly what it advertises. Have you ever been on a highway during a horrible accident? No matter how hard you try – can you look away? That is the sensationalism that drives the creation of a film like this one. Mondo Cane is a film that works on perverse, violent, cruel, sad, xenophobic and eccentric levels. That may be why I love it so much.
What makes this film interesting is its unabashed willingness to shock you with violent and unfortunate images. For example, the very first scene features a dog being forcefully dragged around by an unseen man – only to be thrown into a cramped cage filled with other obviously starving dogs. In terms of animal cruelty, we also see sharks cut open and poisoned, live baby chickens rolled in dye and burned alive, bulls being ritualistically slaughtered, dogs being eaten in Asian countries and even snakes being skinned and eaten alive. This is NOT a film that I would ever want to watch with a member of PETA. In fact, I am all about the killing of animals for food, but some of the things shown for shock value were nothing short of sickening.
Animals are not the only thing to be exploited in Mondo Cane. We are also treated to the visuals of some extremely uncomfortable, yet devastatingly interesting, foreign cultures. This documentary features a section entirely dedicated to the living caveman. Released in 1962, it is hard to know what parts of the film are still accurate, but the idea that somewhere in the world there are still people without language who use giant clubs as weapons is fascinating. Mondo Cane shows you these people. Another interesting scene features religious men in Italy repeatedly stabbing themselves in the legs with broken glass on Good Friday. After their legs are covered in blood, they take to the streets at running speeds in order to spread the word of the Lord. This part was obviously bloody, but it was not even close to the most shocking.
The outstanding thing that separates a “shockumentary” like Mondo Cane from a regular documentary is the showing of human death. While some documentaries choose to display human death for educational purposes, this film seems to exploit death for a cheap thrill. In one scene, we see a man gored to death by a runway bull. After he is dead, another man simply comes into frame and drags the dead body away. It is almost like the man was not real – but we know otherwise. The hardest part to watch was the introduction of the death houses where dying people are left to meet their final fate. I had to look away from the screen as the sick and elderly inhabitants of these houses sat in obvious pain just waiting to die. This was emotionally challenging stuff to watch.
Actually showing human death raises the age old question for film nerds: is Mondo Cane a snuff film? The short answer to this question is no. Though it does exploit the concept of death for a thrill, the film is still an educational documentary. Nobody is killed onscreen by the filmmakers for entertainment purposes. This film was the inventor of the “mondo” genre, and also served as the leading influence for another, almost snuff, film- the infamous, Faces of Death (1980).
At the time of its release, Time Magazine called Mondo Cane the “season’s most argued about film.” In today’s world we would compare this film to an especially risqué episode of National Geographic. Still, I found the desire to exploit unusual human cultures incredibly interesting. The film does provide a viewer with social satire, global awareness and educational worldly ideas. But Mondo Cane is mostly a film that appeals to the lowest values of entertainment. Shocking for the sake of being shocking, this film’s three directors should be ashamed of how blatantly they mocked other cultures. They should also be proud of making an extremely memorable documentary.
Mondo Cane: A-