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The Organizer (1963) brings the sensibility of commedia all'italiana to social drama. The story of a labor strike among the socially tight but politically disorganized community to textile workers in a mill outside of Turin in the late 1800s, this is not a political statement nor a social protest. It is lively, funny, chaotic, appreciative of the foibles and failures of the frustrated collective, if you can call them that. Not really a union by any definition, the workers meet after another 14 hour day in which one of their own was maimed by a machine to brainstorm a response. Half of them can neither read nor write and they have all resigned themselves to conditions that demand everything and still keep them in poverty. Their idea of a protest is simply to sound the whistle and walk out an hour early, and they can't even execute that plan, much to the ire of Pautasso (Folco Lulli), the hot-tempered veteran who volunteers to blow the shift whistle and thus make himself the most visible member of the nascent protesters.
Enter Professor Singaglia (Marcello Mastroianni), a threadbare intellectual riding the rails out of a previous scrape to hide out in this town. The arguments in the schoolhouse rouse him from his sleep in the storeroom and, in the manner of a gently encouraging teacher, builds up their confidence and spurs them on to greater (if still modest) goals, along with a little practical advice in preparing for a long strike. He's no con man, but his oratory passions sweep them up before they really know what they're in for. While they lack any faith in their power to effect change, he believes in the inevitability of labor's collective power. Just maybe not this time around.
Mastroianni made his reputation as a handsome romantic lead, but a large part of his charm was his self-effacing elegance and bemused poise, qualities that come to fore in this change of pace role. Warm, modest, passionate in his conviction and sincere in his actions, the Professor is an idealist with a practical side, whether he's rousing a deflated collective to hold out or scrounging for a meal. Even under a scraggly, unwashed beard and patchy clothes, he has an easy dignity and the comportment of a gentleman: offered a place to hide out from the police by a supportive prostitute (Annie Girardot), he folds himself into a short bench in her closet. But he's also a man, and when she proffers an invitation to climb in beside her, he leaps up with a grin and the spring of a man hungry for more than food.
Mastroianni is the ostensible lead and the most animated and entertaining performance, but the people of the town are the more dynamic, especially the angry young man Raoul (Renato Salvatori), a brooding, thuggish guy who puts the make on all women with a crude, leering manner and sneers at talk of collective action. He's all about looking after number one and is only grudgingly shamed into joining the strike, but his resolve grows through the process, as does his humanity, perhaps in part because he falls in love and starts feeling protective about someone besides himself. Bernard Blier's Martinetti is a decent, practical man too easily swayed to give in as the strike takes its toll on his family and Folco Lulli's gruff Pautasso is burly and short-fused, the first to sign on and quick to bow out when he feels abandoned by the rest. The characters are types, to be sure, but Monicelli and the actors make them memorable characters with depths beyond the clichés suggested in the early scenes, with full lives and real concerns to weigh on their commitment to the strike. And on the margins of the adult orbits is Omero (Franco Ciolli), a school-age boy resigned to the reality of working a full day in the factory but determined to keep his younger brother in school. This tough, scuffed-up boy never presents himself as a victim or feels sorry for his lot. He believes in the Professor wit ha passion that no adult can match, perhaps because he needs to.
The film is dense in detail, from the chilly, overcrowded homes (the films opens with Omero waking up and chipping a layer of ice from the pitcher holding their washing water) to the thrum of rows upon rows of clattering looms in a suffocating, steam-powered factory. (Monicelli found a shuttered old plant and rehabilitated it for the film, giving it an authenticity that no recreation could have matched.) Monicelli doesn't stop to comment upon the squalor except for one scene, when the locals march on the cabin of a Sicilian newcomer to "teach him a lesson" and end up shocked by the conditions of the mud-floor hovel that his enormous family huddles in. When these struggling folks are struck dumb by the poverty, you know how bad things are.
What is ultimately so moving is how little they ask, how much they sacrifice, and how little comes of it. The Organizer is neither a rousing celebration nor a triumphant drama. It is a drama of struggle and failure and people picking themselves up again to survive another day, buoyed by wonderful comic streak running underneath, not as satire but as simple human comedy in a tough world. It only makes the tragic dimensions more resonant, right down to the resignation of the final image. But even in that there is hope for another day.
Criterion releases the film on both Blu-ray and DVD in a lovely edition from a beautifully remastered print with a strong black-and-white image. The sole video supplement is a 10-minute video introduction by director Mario Monicelli (recorded in 2006) where the director talks of the origins of the project and shares details from the production. The fold-out booklet features an essay by J. Hoberman.
For more information about The Organizer, visit Criterion Collection. To order The Organizer, go to TCM Shopping.
by Sean Axmaker