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Source Magazine: Thinking Through Photography - Web Articles - Writers Prize - What’s in a Title? - Critiques of Realism Across Genres in 1960s and 70s Italy - by Francesca Butterfield. Posted: Tue 25 Jul 2023.

WRITERS PRIZE: 25 / JUL / 2023
Critiques of Realism Across Genres in 1960s and 70s Italy
by Francesca Butterfield

The 1962 Italian film Mondo Cane is not suitable for all audiences. It is filled to the brim with taboos—some harmless, some not—such as nudity, polyandry, animal cruelty, cross dressing, and violence. Written and directed by Paolo Cavara, Franco Prosperi, and Gualtiero Jacopetti, the film has a runtime of 108 minutes and is comprised of thirty-six Technicolor vignettes shot around the world. Despite being denounced as low-brow exploitation and ‘shockumentary’, Mondo Cane’s box office success is a testament to the power of the masses. (1) It was used internationally as the model for a throng of successive films that featured graphic content under the guise of factuality. Piggybacking on the success of Mondo Cane, many of these films feature ‘mondo’ in their title, giving rise to the Mondo genre. Alex Brannan notes that, in the 1960s and 70s, "putting ‘mondo’ in a film’s title became a shorthand way of marketing it as titillating and scandalous". (2)

In 1974, photographer Carla Cerati published a book of images of Milan’s partying elite titled Mondo Cocktail: 61 fotografie a Milano (Cocktail World: 61 Photographs of Milan). As a native of the Mondo genre’s country of origin, Cerati almost certainly knew the implications of her book’s title. However, anyone who picks up Mondo Cocktail in search of taboo content will be disappointed to find images far from scandalous––they might even be described as mundane. Party attendees wear lavish furs, strings of pearls, and chic ensembles (figure 1); they sip drinks and take drags from cigarettes (figure 2); they laugh at jokes, engage in polite conversations, and gaze across the room out of boredom or aloofness (figure 3).

Evidently, Cerati does not attempt to replicate the content of Mondo—rather, she references the genre to align herself with its relationship to realism. Italy’s better-known Neorealism movement, also known as the Golden Age of Italian film, emerged out of a desire for filmic realism in the post-war period. Neorealism directors such as Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica cast non-professional actors and shot on location to augment the authenticity of their films.(3) However, Mark Goodall comments that Mondo Cane’s director Gualtiero Jacopetti ‘mistrusted the "authentic" truth of Neorealism—the way in which fictional films were presented, visually and ideologically, as fact—rejecting the idea that the indexical function of (cinema) photography is "truthful" or "evidential". (4) At Mondo Cane’s opening, a cautionary message is narrated: "All the scenes that you are about to see are real, and were shot as they were taking place... the duty of a reporter is not to make the truth seem sweeter, but to show things as they really are".(5) Despite this claim, many of the film’s scenes are conspicuously staged or manipulated by their makers. This is an example of the subversive capacity of sound and image in film, which Allan Sekula asserts can be "worked over and against each other, leading to the possibility of negation and metacommentary. An image can be offered as evidence, and then subverted".(6) In this way, the ironic mismatch between Mondo Cane’s claim to truth and its evident fabrication works to satirize Neorealism.

I would suggest, then, that Cerati does not reference Mondo in her book’s title to entice her audience with titillating or offensive content, but to engage with the genre’s anti-documentary sentiment. The still photographs in Mondo Cocktail cannot merge sound and image, but Cerati associates her book with the Mondo film genre to capitalize on its medium-specific subversion. This is an instance of what Christian Uva refers to as the mutual cross-referencing between photography and video, both "ideal instruments of media and cultural counter-power" that was common in 1970s Italy.(7) Cerati thus brings the documentary value of her photographs into question by associating them with the Mondo genre.

The Mondo genre might be considered the low-brow, low-budget counterpart to Italy’s renowned Neorealist films. Mondo’s rejection of Neorealism’s claims to authenticity, then, is by necessity also a rejection of high-brow culture. Mondo film, for all its flaws, is a genre of the masses: accessible, democratic, and widely popular. In adopting the ethos of Mondo, Cerati takes on the genre’s mass appeal and disavowal of elitism—the very subject that her photographs depict.

Images: Figure 1: (top) Carla Cerati, Mondo Cocktail. 61 fotografie a Milano (Milan: Pizzi, 1974), 16. Figure 2: (middle) Carla Cerati, Mondo Cocktail. 61 fotografie a Milano (Milan: Pizzi, 1974), 24. Figure 3: (bottom) Carla Cerati, Mondo Cocktail. 61 fotografie a Milano (Milan: Pizzi, 1974), 15.

1. Alex Brannan, ‘“The Film You Are About to See is Shocking”: Mondo Cane and the Horror Genre’, Film International 17, no. 2 (June 2019): 79.

2. Brannan, ‘Mondo Cane and the Horror Genre’, 81.

3. Mark Goodall, ‘“See the World in the Raw”: Mondo as Document’, in Sweet & Savage: The World Through the Shockumentary Film Lens (London: Headpress, 2006), 18.

4 Goodall, ‘Mondo as Document’, 18.

5. Jacopetti, Cavara, and Prosperi, Mondo Cane, 00:01:20.

6. Allan Sekula, ‘Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary (Notes on the Politics of Representation)’, Massachusetts Review 19, no. 4 (Winter 1978): 869.

7. Christian Uva, ‘Photography as Counter-Power: Theory and Practice of Political Images in the 1970s’, in Photography as Power: Dominance and Resistance Through the Italian Lens (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2019), 218.

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