Director Mario Monicelli said that he liked to tell stories about a group of people who reached beyond their means and failed in the process. Comedy predicated on such a premise usually invites viewers to laugh at the characters and often to wallow in their humiliation. Monicelli certainly wants us to laugh both at and with the working class heroes in “The Organizer” (1963), but he always treats them with a sense of affection and dignity, no matter how foolish they sometimes may act. Some may be vain, some may not be so bright, but they don't fail because of their shortcomings; they fail because they're playing a game that's rigged against them from the start. And that creates an instant sense of kinship, the nobility of the good and futile fight.
In late 19th century Turin, a group of textile factory workers become fed up with labor conditions, and are willing to put up a fight to improve their lot. Their bosses, of course, have no intention of caving into their outrageous demands: they want their work day reduced from fourteen hours to a mere thirteen, and they want more than a few minutes for lunch. Insanity! The pool of desperate workers in Italy is large, and the lords of industry believe they merely have to wait out the uprising because the poor don't have the resources for a long siege. They're right, of course.
The script (co-written by Monicelli and the famous team of Age & Scarpelli) seems more like the outline for an earnest neo-realist drama than a comedy, but Monicelli had already founded his own brand of humor that came to be known as commedia all'italiana. The style often features broad comic performances against a background of despair and defeatism; these were not comedies with happy endings which seems to be a contradiction. But viewers found they could enjoy watching the flawed, likable characters as they were put through their paces and made the best of the moment even when victory was clearly out of reach.
In one of the film's best sequences, the still-coalescing movement plans to walk out of work an hour early. One man agrees to blow the whistle so the rest have an excuse to leave, but when the boss just happens to show up at the wrong time, the plan falls to pieces. It's a sign of things to come, but if the workers are considering packing it in after their first defeat, their spirits are bolstered by the arrival in town of a stranger. Part hobo/part communist firebrand, Professor Singaglia (Marcello Mastroianni) has all sorts of ideas on how to wage the resistance, and he feels no compunction about promoting these ideas to a group of townsfolk he has known for all of ten seconds. No need to sweat the details - the workers control the means of production!
It's difficult to tell exactly what we're supposed to make of Singaglia, and that's both a strength and limitation of the film. Is he a fool playing with the fates of a group of people he has no connection to, or an idealist willing to sacrifice his libretyfor the good of the collective and for future workers everywhere? Despite being the uber-suave Marcello Mastroianni, Singaglia is certainly not a dashing figure. After delivering a feisty speech that motivates a room full of people to rush out to demonstrate with a song on their lips, his eyes widen as he spies a left-over sandwich. You can practically see the drool as he slowly inches closer to his crusty treasure, only to be interrupted by a returning worker who meekly asks for his lunch back.
As much as I admire Mastroianni (and he's as good as ever here), I feel “The Organizer” loses a bit of its energy once he enters the picture and takes attention away from the bustling set of characters who kicked off the strike in the first place. The communal focus lends the film its comedic and dramatic heft, the dozen or more individual stories, each distinguished in its own right, that comprise the greater movement. Narrowing in on the outsider as the narrative center puts too much emphasis on his development, or at least it's too much if you're enjoying the many non-professional actors (some actual factory workers – though not ones imported from the late 19th century, mind you) and their behavioral foibles. When Singaglia occasionally drops out of the story for a scene or two as the struggle proceeds without him, the film is at its finest.
“The Organizer” features several strong scenes, including an elaborately-staged train yard confrontation where the workers battle a group of scabs who are every bit as desperate as they are. In addition, the faded, rough-gray photography by Giuseppe Rotunno imbues the film with a sense of era that never feels manufactured. And even with the amply-telegraphed defeat at the end, the film still leaves viewers with at least a small sense of triumph; these men and women fought and lost, but at least they fought.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The 1080p transfer shows some minor signs of wear, but they only contribute to the impressive look of this old-timey photography. The black-and-white contrast is sharp, the black levels are deep and rich, and the image detail is exceptional throughout. The slightly faded look (think early photography) is preserved beautifully in this transfer.
The LPCM 1.0 track is fairly standard and doesn't have much in the way of depth, but it's not supposed to either. The audio is all clear with no hint of crackle or distortion. Optional English subtitles support the Italian audio.
This is close to a bare bones release from Criterion. All we get is a 10-minute interview with director Mario Monicelli, recorded in 2006. The director died in 2010 so it's great to have another interview on record, but it's fairly brief and covers the usual ground, talking about his definition of commedia all'italiana. Still good though. The only other extra is a Trailer.
The fold-out insert booklet is also unusually thin (just four pages) with no graphics beyond the cover. It features an essay by critic J. Hoberman.
This Criterion release is mighty slim on extras, but the high-def transfer is excellent. “The Organizer” has generally lapsed into obscurity after making an initial splash in the 60s, but it deserves attention who probably know Monicelli best for “Big Deal on Madonna Street.” The script by Monicelli and Age & Scarpelli (Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli) was nominated for an Academy Award.