Director/Coscreenwriter: Mario Monicelli
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One of the Oscar-nominated films this year, The Reader, shows the horrible consequences illiteracy can have on the lives of those who cannot read, causing its female protagonist to make a morally repugnant choice to keep her shameful deficit a secret. The Organizer is another film in which illiteracy plays a very large role, but shame isn’t something its victims feel; rather, the shame is largely on a society that exploits them by keeping them so exhausted that they haven’t got the energy to learn and so poor that they can’t wait to leave school and start earning some money.
The film, which takes place in the late 1890s, deals with the struggle of textile workers in Turin to improve their working conditions and wages. Under the opening credits, workers are heard singing a rousing labor song, “Marcia della cinghia” (“March of the strap”). Among them is Omero (Franco Ciolli), a young man of about 18, who has had to chop through ice to get water to pour from a pitcher into a scrub basin; after testing the water with his finger, he decides to skip washing before he sets off for a 14-hour shift at the factory.
Close-up, repetitive images of the shivering looms interspersed with workers tending to the turning gears, pushing gigantic metal spindles along the shop floor, and pushing fabric through sewing machines are scored by the screeching and drumming of the machines in action. Workers are given a mere half hour for lunch (in Italy!) and then answer the whistle to return to work. Nearing 8 p.m. and the end of their work day, workers nod at their posts. A sudden howl of pain has workers rush to one machine where Pietrino (Antonio di Silvio) works to free his ensnared hand. At the hospital, several of his coworkers take up a collection to help while he is recuperating from amputation. A Sicilian worker merely makes a “phsst” sound through his teeth when asked to contribute. The workers complain about all of the industrial accidents caused by the long hours, then hurry home, complaining about the sleep they’ve lost that night attending to their friend.
A group of workers meet the next day and decide to protest by blowing the whistle one hour early. The men and women, most notably the powerfully built Pautasso (Folco Lulli) and the equally powerfully built Adele (Gabriella Giorgelli), write their names on a piece of paper. The name drawn will be the one who sneaks up to blow the whistle. When the name is drawn, it is merely an “X.” “Who signed with an X?” Four men raise their hands. Pautasso shrugs and says, “I’ll do it.” Unfortunately, at 7:30 pm, the foreman comes to the boiler room, causing the workers who agreed to shut down the machines to keep them running when Pautasso blows the whistle. With the machines moving, the rest of the workers stay where they are. Pautasso is caught and suspended for two weeks.
After work, as Pautasso storms out of the manager’s office with his daughter Maria (Edda Ferronao) in tow, stopping only to throw rocks at his “comrades,” a train pulls up. A bearded, ragged man evades a railroad conductor, and drops from the car in which he has stolen a ride. He goes to see his colleague Maestro di Meo (François Périer), a grade-school teacher in town who tries to teach the illiterate adults in Turin to read and write in the evening. Di Meo puts up Professor Sinigaglia (Marcello Mastrioanni) in a backroom. The next day, the still-disgruntled workers meet to form a committee to deal with the factory managers. Instead of leaving work early, they decide to go in one hour later. Sinigaglia joins the group when young Raoul (Renato Salvatori) proclaims skepticism at their chances of success against the bosses. Sinigaglia agrees with Raoul that they should not risk failure for so little, and agitates them to go on strike. So begins a month-long action that will see two of the workers die—one in an attempt to keep poor, unemployed men from another town from scabbing their jobs, the other in a march on the factory to demand their rights—and more collections taken on their behalf, racist-laced anger at the Sicilian who asks to go back to work melt when they see how incredibly poor he and his family are, and a new union organizer made.
Monicelli, best known worldwide for his comic caper Big Deal on Madonna Street, has a deft hand for both the fine details and broad strokes of comedy and uses them to flesh out a story that in other hands has been told with tragic seriousness. Mastrioanni’s character is chronically hungry. Right after his first appearance, he is seen spotting and grabbing hold of a sandwich one of the workers has left on a table. The worker comes back to retrieve the sandwich—when he sees it in the professor’s hands, his friendliness melts away and, glaring, he confiscates it from the sheepish organizer and stares back suspiciously at him as he climbs the stairs to the street. In another scene, a streetwalker named Niobe (Annie Girardot) takes pity on the professor, who has had to flee from his billet in Raoul’s apartment to avoid arrest, and tells him he can stay at her place. We watch the professor eye her as she removes her clothes behind a curtain and washes. When she settles into her big brass bed and eyes him in his long johns on a hard window seat, she hardly has the words out to invite him into her bed before he dashes to her side.
The factory owner is another piece of work. Obviously inspired by Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life, he revels in his own nastiness, hitting his blindfolded, piñata-seeking granddaughter with his cane as he whizzes past her in his wheelchair to whine to his managers about the money he is losing to the strike. He invites them to join the birthday party, then reconsiders when he sees they’re not dressed properly. As he slams out of the room, the nonplussed managers merely look down at their suits.
The community of workers is large, and Monicelli finds room to tell more than a few stories. While he highlights some families, the sense of shared fates is strong, particularly in the seemingly endless collections they take. When the striking textile workers steal coal from an idle coal car, the professor tries to persuade the railroad workers to strike in solidarity. His request is refused with the remark, “I’m letting them steal coal, aren’t I?” Nobody can really afford to be without work, yet as we learn early, “hands don’t grow back.” Mastrioanni’s character represents idealism, but based on a very real need that simply could not go unanswered. Education, as well, is given a lot of attention in the film, with Omero beating up his underperforming younger brother for wanting to quit school and join him in the factory. “I’d rather kill you than see you do what I do,” he says, a desperate statement that shows how deadly serious this often light film really is.
In fact, The Organizer reveals many familiar patterns of labor films, and in that vein, distances the audience from deep pain by creating slightly shallow characterizations. The idea, I think, behind this common genre strategy is to allow viewers to project themselves into the masses of workers, deliberately emphasizing in Brechtian style a movement over individuality. It is the problem of a few individuals who want to keep the good life for themselves that creates the misery of the many, and labor films seek to put these facts in high relief. It may be a bit detrimental to the cause, however, to allow audiences to skim the depth of despair and avoid truly mourning the loss of good men and women to poor working conditions and craven capitalists who value their property over human life.
In addition to the many wonderful comic/tragic performances of which Mastrioanni’s is only one, composer Carlo Rustichelli lends his considerable gifts to this film, punctuating the score with the types of comic moments for which he is known, particularly in his work with Pietro Germi. His tempos and Monicelli’s lively mise-en-scène keep this somewhat complex film humming with energy. His “Marcia della cinghia” is superb—I’d be surprised if it weren’t sung at labor rallies now as a legitimate populist march of solidarity.
Mario Monicelli has made buckets of movies, his most recent in 2006. Eric Rohmer announced his retirement this year, and he’s five years younger than Monicelli. Here’s hoping Monicelli will buck the “trend” and give us more films like The Organizer. l