Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Workingman Blues

Mario Monicelli’s The Organizer, which Criterion is releasing on DVD and Blu-Ray today, is, I’d say, about half of a truly compelling film. That half consists of a large group of factory workers in turn-of-the-century Turin who, following an accident where one worker gets his arm caught in a piece of machinery, decide enough is enough, now is the time to stand up for their rights. They work 14 hours a day and are paid nothing close to what they at least feel they deserve, and there is no system in place to care for the injured worker, or others like him, so the workers band together and talk about unionizing. Monicelli’s story at this point is about the big picture – while some focus is trained on individual workers like the teenaged Omero (Franco Ciolli), whose youth does not exclude him from the domestic role of head of the house, and the burly Pautasso (Folco Lulli) who has an occasionally abrasive relationship with his colleagues, it’s the group that interests Monicelli.
What makes the early stages of The Organizer work is this broad view of the situation, and also Monicelli’s unwillingness to ramp up the nobility of the workers to the realm of the heavenly. In his essay that comes with the Criterion booklet, J. Hoberman points out that Monicelli thought of his early 50s films as “neorealist farces,” and this isn’t too far from the impression I got from the first half of The Organizer, which came out in 1963. The workers’ bumbling may not reach actual slapstick levels, but the need for the individual of the title is very evident. A planned hour-early walkout is fumbled out of apathy, uncertainty, and fear, and the blame for the very idea of it is placed by the bosses on Pautasso, the only man who fulfilled his role. At a meeting to try and get things straight and on the right track, a thickly-accented man stands to speak his mind, and one of the union leaders on the dais mumbles “Shit, I didn’t catch a damned word of that.” All of this is played pretty lightly – the stakes don’t feel genuinely raised until one worker seeks permission to break the strike the workers have finally decided to stage, and the union’s outrage isn’t dampened until they’ve seen the poverty the man and his family live in. Which is another strong element of the film’s first chunk: rarely are scabs given a fair shake in films like this, but here they are. Monicelli acknowledges that someone may turn scab or cross a picket line because, you know, they desperately need to earn a living. Of course, this also serves to underline what kind of a living is being earned by working in this particular factory for 14 hours every day.
The Organizer turns on a scene in a train yard, one in which a shouting match between strikers and scabs turns into a somewhat comical fight. This comedy is intentional, yet leads to a fatality, and the loss of a character I believe the film could ill afford. By now, the organizer himself, Professor Sinigaglia (Marcello Mastroianni) has started to take center stage, and after the tragedy he takes over almost completely. Sinigaglia is a strange mix of hobo, professor, and union rabble-rouser, and Mastroainni is entirely swell in the role, but now the focus of the film doesn’t so much shift to him as zoom in on him. And I simply didn’t care that much. There’s an old saying, “You gotta dance with the one that brung you” (there are probably more grammatical versions out there, but this is the one I know), and The Organizer doesn’t do that, to its detriment. A not insignificant portion of Sinigaglia’s story, once he takes center stage, is given over to a cursory romance with a sympathetic upper-class woman, a storyline that is not exactly off-topic, but is also nowhere near as vital, on any level, as the lives of the factory workers. Perhaps Monicelli didn’t want to spend any more time immersed in their inability or unwillingness to do anything more than complain and gather together in meeting halls, but I did. There was a particularly unusual and dark comedy fighting for life in that material that was eased aside for the gentle bumbling and wisdom of a good-hearted professor.
Of course, the film gets dark again right quick, as Sinigaglia’s organizing finally takes hold all in a rush, and the workers and the strikebreakers clash. Hoberman makes the point that The Organizer ends on a note, not of defeated optimism, but rather optimistic defeat. There’s an interesting music swell as the factory reopens, and a hard determination in the eyes of the boy who is far too young to be working anywhere walking through the gates of the factory to begin his first day there. But the meandering nature that often gives neorealist films their vitality, and a digressive, everyday quality, here is used rather ungenerously. If we’re to meander, why not share the wealth, and follow around Omero a bit more, or Pautasso, or anyone? Better that than to let the title character overwhelm everything.

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