The Organizer

film stillThe Organizer was originally released in Italy in 1963 under the title I Compagni. It was made and shown to general audiences under interesting, and to some extent, peculiar circumstances. To begin with, it was a film about social conflict, directed by a man considered a master of light comedies. His name was Mario Monicelli and he was already well known for his previous film work.  One such film is I Soliti Ignoti (1958, known in the U.S. as Big Deal on Madonna Street), one of the biggest box office successes in post-war Europe. Another of his films, La Grande Guerra (The Great War, 1959), had won honors at the Venice Film Festival, sharing the Golden Lion Prize with Il Generale della Rovere by Roberto Rossellini.

Now, following a couple of minor works and more than three years of relative inactivity, Monicelli stepped behind the camera again. The producer, Franco Cristaldi, owned the production company Vides, which the Italian Socialist Party financially controlled. Cristaldi commissioned Monicelli to make a film on the birth of Italian trade unionism. The producer wanted a film that would be a social drama and a comedy at the same time. For this reason, Monicelli, who had always preferred developing his own stories, worked on the script with the cooperation of two celebrities of vaudeville theatre and television, known by their stage names, Age and Scarpelli. Despite this joint effort, The Organizer is definitely more social drama than comedy.

The film is about the rise of labor protests in Turin’s textile industry at the end of the 19th century. Workers fight for higher pay and for a safer workplace. The protests seem to have no result whatsoever until an intellectual, Professor Sinigaglia, helps the workers to mount a strike. From that moment the professor becomes a target of the police. He is no longer an intellectual — he is an organizer, a social agitator and a potential public enemy.

Marcello Mastroianni portrays the professor, and in doing so gives one of his finest screen performances. Although Mastroianni appears in less than one third of the movie, all his actions are perfectly blended to other parts of the story — from his first scene, where he stares through his glasses with frightened, myopic eyes, to the moment where he is led away by the police, still groping for his glasses. More than half of his role is pure mime: the continual, obsessive silent search for food, the huddling in rags in search of warmth, and the erratic gestures of a small frightened animal always attempting to keep one step ahead of the fox.

Mario Monicelli, who was himself a member of the Italian Socialist Party, describes Mastroianni’s performance in the following words:  “The professor corresponds more or less to the character of the sheriff in a western. He arrives and settles an injustice. He redresses wrongs. I am saying this in my own way, of course, toned down with humor. He is filled with astonishment, doubts, weaknesses and is somewhat ludicrous, but he is driven only by the desire to correct the situation.”

Although the film is focused upon a single central figure it doesn’t mean that the minor characters of the film, the “comrades” as the original title says, are merely cardboard figures. Monicelli has chosen and directed their characterization with such finesse that they rise far above the clichés of stolid workers. They are seen working, fighting, loving and blundering until they also become very real. So real that one of the actors, Folco Lulli, received an Italian Film Industry award for the portrayal of Pautasso, a furious bull of a man.

The Organizer is indeed Mario Monicelli’s principal film of serious social intent. Throughout his career, he worked to unite laughter with a sense of desperation, and in this film he has masterfully portrayed the need of his characters to survive within their social milieu. The fact that in several sequences in The Organizer Monicelli’s commitment overcomes the comic aspect of the film partly explains its commercial failure. As a matter of fact, The Organizer was a blunt, unexpected flop at the box office. This was also partly due to a silly, incompetent press campaign whose most intelligent slogan was “Labor unions. Don’t be afraid. This is a funny movie.”  Another contributing factor may have been that the critics had largely misunderstood the film: one reviewer described it as “populist and ambiguous.”

Yet another, more general reason lies in the political situation in Italy of the early 1950s; the decade before this film was made and known there as the Welfare Decade. It was a time when Italian society was slowly forgetting about the nightmare of Fascism and World War II. For the first time since the end of the war a party of the Left, the Socialist Party, was participating in a coalition government together with the Christian Democrats. Of course, this was considered by the extreme Left, which was at that time the Communist Party, sort of a betrayal of the Socialist ideal. Nevertheless, it was during that period that organized labor became a really major voice in the political debate. The events portrayed in The Organizer appeared to take place in a previous historical period, but the film was about contemporary class struggle.

For the first time the Italian public was seeing that the dream of a single great labor union had the potential to become a reality. The latter half of the 60s witnessed a battle in which the three great union organizations in the country allied themselves respectively to the Christian Democrats, the Socialists and the Communist Party, and essentially became a single political force. From that time on, Italian politics were ruled not just by the government or political parties; labor was obtaining bargaining power, though not comparable to that of the great unions in France and the United Kingdom in the same period. Paradoxically, this situation slowly led to a crisis in the Italian labor unions. This is a dramatic recent chapter of a story which is still very far from solution at the end of the 80s and, alas, beyond the turn of the century.  It’s a long story to tell, and The Organizer is a long film, but its 126 minutes are well worth your attention. So, as the publicity stated: “Don’t be afraid. This is a very good movie.”

This introduction was presented by Paolo Cherchi Usai at a screening of The Organizer on 17 August 1989.

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About Paolo Cherchi Usai

Paolo Cherchi Usai is Senior Curator of the Motion Picture Department at George Eastman House (Rochester, New York). Co-founder of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy, he is also Director of the Eastman House’s L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation; Curator Emeritus of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia; and resident Curator of the Telluride Film Festival.