The International Circulation of Italian Mondo Movies

The release of Mondo cane (1962) represented a sort of turning point for so-called “extreme cinema”. In this controversial documentary, Italian filmmaker Gualtiero Jacopetti (in a crucial partnership with Paolo Cavara and Franco Prosperi) used cinematographic language (and more specifically film editing) in an unusual and highly innovative way. One of the best examples of this experimental attitude towards filmic grammar is represented by what critic Mark Goodall identifies as the shock cut: the unpredictable connection between various sequences (such as the image of the white, naked breast of a blond European girl and one of an indigenous woman, breastfeeding a wild boar).

This and other stylistic elements are employed to reinforce the specific point of view of the director towards the cultural myths of post-war world. The continuous juxtaposition between manhood and animals and the bitter attitude towards various anthropological expressions taken randomly from Europe, America, Africa and Asia helps to communicate a general skepticism about concepts such as progress and modernity. From an historical perspective, the importance of the movie is mainly connected with its ability to generate a specific subgenre (labelled, not by chance, mondo movies), that colonized the Italian cinematographic market for at least three decades. For a variety of reasons, mainly related to the ideological perspective adopted by Jacopetti and his epigones (who were accused of orientalism, if not explicit racism), the phenomenon has never been fully acknowledged and analyzed in Italy (this is demonstrated, for example, by the absence of an academic study on the trend).

From an international point of view, on the contrary, these movies were able to generate a large (and ongoing) interest, both in academia and in fan communities. Surveys of the international circulation of this specific genre and on the various re-adaptations of the original Italian movies in the international market are currently at an early stage (due in particular to the difficulty in accessing to various mondo movies). Nevertheless, it is possible to formulate some preliminary hypotheses on the topic, that can eventually act as guiding lines for future inquiries.

The best vehicle for this aim is, without any doubt, the case of Mondo Cane itself. As well as gaining Best Production at the local Donatello awards, the film was presented at the Cannes Film Festival in 1962 and even nominated at the Oscars for its soundtrack. Cultural interest in the movie helped it to gain a wide global circulation: released in March 1962 in Italy, the film was screened at Cannes in May and then a few months later reached the Japanese market (September 1962). Between 1963 and 1965 the film was then distributed in various other countries, including Norway, USA, Mexico, Argentina, Hong Kong, Sweden and Spain. The Japanese market’s peculiar in the phenomenon would merit special attention, and in fact the film was re-released a little more than ten years after its début (1975).

Similar results emerge from an analysis of the international circulation of other iconic films by Jacopetti, such as La donna nel mondo/ Women of the World (released in January 1963 in Italy, and few months later in Japan and then the USA) and Africa Addio (first screened in Italy in February 1966, presented in various nations over the following two years – and in this case too, Japan was the first country to screen the movie). At a preliminary level, it seems that the Jacopetti and his specific personality as auteur, acted as a sort of catalyst for the diffusion of his movies, which was far faster than other iconic mondo productions. For example, Africa Ama/Africa Uncensored, one of the films directed by anthropologists and archaeologists Angelo and Alfredo Castiglioni, was released in Italy in November 1971 but then had a far less rapid circulation: the first screenings in other country took place over the following seven years (USA and Japan: 1972; France: 1974; UK: 1977). However, there are certain significant exceptions: a few of the later and more extreme mondo productions gained a rapid circulation (such as the well-known Dimensione Violenza/The Savage Zone by Mario Morra: released in 1983, it was immediately screened in Japan).

These first data potentially suggests that what was really at stake in the international circulation of Italian mondo films was the extreme, shocking and violent character of the images. This hypothesis finds confirmation in a specific process of adaptation of the content of these films, with changing in the voice over commentary or even addition of new sequences. Angeli bianchi… Angeli neri, a mondo directed by Luigi Scattini in 1969 devoted mainly to magic and satanism, remains a striking example of this phenomenon. The American version of the movie released the following year with the title Witchcraft ’70 was significantly manipulated by the additions and changes of the director Robert Lee Frost, inserting new images alongside the original content shot by Scattini.

The example of Witchcraft ’70 is particularly interesting because it demonstrates that the international adaptation of Italian mondo helped in promoting and emphasizing the shocking and spectacularly violent content of the movies. Given that the exploitative nature of mondo film is unquestionable, it is important to stress that – at least during its first fifteen years of its life – the genre was characterized by a strong rhetorical structure, insofar as the movies were mainly devoted to the demonstration of a specific thesis (in the case of Angeli bianchi… Angeli neri, for example, the existence of forms of magic and occultism in modern society). This element was progressively moved to the background by the international adaptations, which – along with new voice-over commentaries and the addition of new content – started to give priority to the bloody aspect of the movies.

A specific and complete analysis of the international circulation of Italian mondo productions is yet to be completed. Evidently that kind of research would have a double value: on the one hand, it will help to frame the development of what we can provisionally call “national mondo productions”: imitative products that mocked Jacopetti’s style and were devoted to specific national realities (such as Primitive London, released in 1963, and Mondo Hollywood, in 1967). On the other, a more detailed analysis of the ways in which the content of Italian mondos were re-adapted in different nations, with specific reference to the emergence of the gory aspect, would help us understand more completely the reasons that led to the emergence of the shockumentary tradition (non by chance, mainly in the USA and Japan).