Most sources state that the director Mario Monicelli (1915-2010) was born in Viareggio, Tuscany, although the film critic Stefano Della Casa argues that he likely was born in Rome instead. His father Tomaso was a notable journalist and playwright who, among other things, worked with his relative Arnoldo Mondadori to found the most important publishing house in Italy, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore. In fact, Monicelli's first feature film, a 1935 adaptation of Ferenc Molnár's novel The Boys of Paul Street, was co-directed by Mondadori's son Alberto. (The Mondadori publishing house owned the Italian rights to the novel.) The film was shot on 16mm and won a prize at the Venice Film Festival.
Monicelli later developed a close working relationship with the screenwriter Steno (Stefano Vanzina), and the two co-directed the comedy Totó Looks for a House (1949), starring the popular comedian from Naples. During the 1950s, Totó comedies became a mainstay of Italian popular cinema and remain so to this day. During this period Monicelli also began collaborating with the comedy screenwriting team Age and Scarpelli (Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli). Starting with Fathers and Sons (1957), he worked with them regularly, including on his breakthrough international hit Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958).
Although it might not seem obvious on the surface since it is a historical drama, I Compagni has subtle, yet important connections with the cycle of films known as commedia all'italiana ("Italian-style comedy"). Notable examples of commedia all'italiana included Big Deal on Madonna Street, Divorce Italian Style (1961) and Seduced and Abandoned (1964). Age and Scarpelli were among the leading screenwriters of these films. According to film scholar Peter Bondanella, the comedies tended to have a "darker, more ironic and cynical vision of Italian life" than the neorealist movement that preceded it. As Monicelli pointed out in an interview with Donata Totaro, in these films "the subject is serious or tragic, but our point of view is comic and humorous. This is a type of comedy that grows out of the fact that Italians see reality and life precisely in this matter." In a 2006 interview included on the Criterion Collection DVD edition, Monicelli further stated that he viewed I Compagni as sharing a common theme with his other films: a group of people "who attempt something that is too big for them and they fail," not unlike Big Deal on Madonna Street.
The film was shot on location at a textile factory near Turin (Monicelli usually preferred location shooting); Monicelli and his crew also did meticulous historical research into the working conditions and labor conflicts of the era. As an Italian-French-Yugoslavian co-production, I Compagni included some well-known French actors in the cast: Bernard Blier, François Périer and Annie Girardot, who has an especially memorable role as Niobe, the prostitute who shelters Professor Sinigaglia from the authorities.
I Compagni premiered at the 35th Congress of the Socialist Party, as befits the subject matter, but it was not a great success in Italy during its initial release. Rather, it earned its reputation mainly through an enthusiastic reception abroad. In the US, its Italian title ("The Comrades") was switched out for a less obviously leftist-sounding The Organizer. When the film opened in New York (May 1964), Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it "engrossingly human, compassionate and humorous." He especially admired Marcello Mastroianni's performance and the authentic feeling of the era evoked in the film; he wrote, "[O]ne feels right in the middle of those classic demonstrations in which the labor movement was born." The film won the prize for Best Film at the Mar del Plata film festival and was listed as one of the top foreign films of the year by both the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review. The film also developed a following with American actors and filmmakers; in a 2001 book-length interview with Mariano Sabatini and Oriana Maerini, Monicelli recalled that Burt Lancaster watched the film repeatedly, and that it was also admired by Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty and Woody Allen.
Producer: Franco Cristaldi
Director: Mario Monicelli
Screenplay: Mario Monicelli, Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli in collaboration with Suso Cecchi d'Amico
Director of Photography: Giuseppe Rotunno
Film Editing: Ruggero Mastroianni
Music: Carlo Rustichelli
Production Design: Mario Garbuglia
Costume Design: Piero Tosi
Principal Cast: Marcello Mastroianni (Professor Giuseppe Sinigaglia); Renato Salvatori (Raoul); Annie Girardot (Niobe); Folco Lulli (Pautasso); Gabriella Giorgelli (Adele); Bernard Blier (Martinetti); Raffaella Carrà (Bianca); François Périer (Maestro Di Meo); Vittorio Sanipoli (Baudet); Franco Ciolli (Omero).
by James Steffen