If you wanted to draw a map of modern exploitation, MONDO CANE would make a good line of demarcation between the grand old MOM AND DAD days and the shocking new. Or not so new now, as this movie is 52 years old, old enough to be a great-grandparent in our debauched modern day. Kids become moms and dads at the drop of a hat now, and then become reality TV stars if they're disgusting enough in an interesting way. Which takes us, full circle, back to MONDO CANE.
The first shockumentary? Maybe. Definitely the one that looms largest. It spawned a whole brood of imitators that ganked its name (MONDO CANDIDO, MONDO BIZARRO) and ripped its style. CANE was the product of two Italian reprobates named Franco Prosperi and Gualtiero Jacopetti (a third dude, Paolo Cavara, had a hand in CANE, *and I was wrong about him not doing any mondo after this* —interesting Wiki info here via anonymous commenter). Usually, one can devote a paragraph to a brief synopsis of a film and everything will be fine, but CANE doesn't work that way. This isn't a film about any particular thing, unless you want to say it's a film about excess or oddities or extremity. It's more of a style. Or maybe the cinema equivalent of the old carnival ten-in-one sideshows.
So here's the story. The Italian film crew traveled to various locations and captured random strange events, then tied them together in the film thematically. So we begin with a memorial for Valentino, attended by random uggos from his village who dream of being the next Valentino. This segues into America, where a random Latin lover is beset by clothes-tearingly horny women. That segues into love rituals of tribal islands and our first excuse for National Geographic-style nudity.
This is how CANE works. It chains together disparate things by their common elements, so the film's narrative proceeds like rivulets of water running down arbitrary crevices in a piece of earth. Or primitive breastmilk running into the mouth of a piglet.
Fair warning: there's some questionable content here. First, CANE inaugurates the Italian tradition of animal cruelty in seedy films. We get tons of bull-hacking, pig beatings, and chicks dyed for Easter, then dried in ovens. The shark scenes are pretty terrible, too, since the poor fish are visibly mutilated, like Varg Vikernes has been after them, then they're pushed back into the sea to presumably drown. When the narrator assures us that the sharks have been eating people in the area, I feel that they are justified in winnowing down the number of dickbags in this seaport.
But who knows if that's what really happened? Because CANE's very prescient in its treatment of facts. Basically, it uses them when they work and works them into entertainment otherwise. How much of this is a con, a scam, hustle, fake? Who knows, but it's difficult to take certain scenes seriously. Like, I'm pretty sure I would've heard about it if there were a restaurant in New York that caters to the rich and serves muskrat, butterfly eggs (lol), and rattlesnake. However, someone watching MONDO CANE in a Belgian grindhouse or rural Italian cinema probably wouldn't bat an eye at such claims. Likewise, I have no idea if the flagellation scenes in Italian streets are real or not. They sure are striking, visually, though.
So are these pre-Baywatch Australian lifeguard babes. CANE cares about eating practices and other made-up anthropological data, but it loves the hell out of sex and death.
Plaintive narration hovers over all the images here, tying things together, and turning the end of a single sea turtle into some kind of world-weary meditation on the futility of life.
But don't worry, because we also get to go to a German bierhall, where hideous people josh around and slosh beer all over the place and also a vomiting man's girlfriend gets very upset about being filmed.
As you can see, these are wildly varying subjects and this really shouldn't work as a cohesive whole. But it does! CANE is arranged almost musically, with dour parts butted up against very light and fluffy fare. Riz Ortolani's superb score holds the film together, in tandem with the ironic narration. By the time we get to Hawaii, all of these elements have congealed into a singular brew. The Hawaii scenes are maybe boring on a surface level, but I'd argue that they are the most mondo of MONDO CANE. We have a bunch of elderly tourists watching hula girls dance and an MC is addressing the audience (in English). The narrator of MONDO CANE provides a purported translation, giving us this lengthy philosophical diatribe that is clearly not what the MC is saying. It's a pretty bare-bones scene, spiced up with a lot of grindhouse sugar.
Once we get to the cavepeople, though, we as viewers are starting to die of diabetes. Too much sugar, too much sizzle. But we're taken this trip through MONDO CANE and we must pursue it to the end.
Which ends up being a cargo cult. One suspects that some artifice is happening here, as we're told all about this tribe's belief in white hijackers who steal the planes sent by their deceased elders. But, really, is reality the most important question? Does it matter that, given how long it takes to set up lighting and cameras, it's likely that, say, "The Bachelor" or cave people are probably entirely works? Should we, post-BLAIR WITCH and such, just treat the alleged reality of these artworks as simply more artistic attributes that enhance the experience? No more or less honorable as gimmicks than smash cuts or soft focus? Because, at least, cave people are good and worth it. And so is MONDO CANE.