The title of this film translates to “A Dog’s World” – which puzzled me for a long while, since there’s very little about dogs in it. But “Mondo Cane” is an Italian-language curse; somewhat equivalent to “Dammit”. And that….fits a bit better, but still isn’t entirely apt. But I’m not sure any spoken expression would fit as well as a cynical shrug.
Mondo Cane bills itself as a “documentary”, with a lengthy disclaimer at the beginning claiming that they were showing scenes from real life – unvarnished. “What you see will shock you, scare you, and challenge you,” a narrator breathlessly warns us, before pre-emptively absolving the filmmakers from any responsibility. They’re just showing us actual events – they’re just the mirror to society. So if we don’t like what we see, don’t blame the filmmakers.
The rest of the film consists of vignettes from around the world, some of which provide “ironic” contrast – an Italian movie star visits a clothes shop and gets mobbed by female fans, and in the next scene we see women from a New Guinea tribe chasing after the men there. A sequence at a pet cemetery, showing a grieving woman mourning her pet poodle, is followed by a sequence at a butchers’ shop in Taiwan where they have live dogs on hand for meat. A sequence showing Wagyu cattle in Tokyo getting force-fed beer follows a sequence showing geese in France being force-fed to produce foie gras – and then another New Guinea sequence showing some women getting force-fed tapioca to appease a tribal lord follows that. And throughout, the same narrator comments wryly on the action as we watch.
Pretty early on, though, I spotted this as being not quite true-to-life – some of the shots were a little too well-set-up and the action a little too “staged”. The narration also made claims that weren’t entirely supported by the action – one sequence is meant to depict how nuclear testing at the Bikini Atoll had so thoroughly disrupted the environment that butterflies were dying in swarms, fish were living in trees, and sea turtles were getting so disoriented after laying their eggs that they got lost trying to find their way back to the sea and died. But…the only evidence we see for any of this is a few fallen butterflies, a couple of mudskippers, and a few shots of a lone sea turtle hauling its way inland on a beach, followed by a shot of a sea turtle flipped upside down and flailing. But mudskippers always have been able to make that jump from water to land. And as for the turtle – it actually looks like several turtles. And – how did it get flipped over anyway?….
So this “documentary” was clearly manipulated. But this kind of manipulation only happens when there’s a specific message the filmmaker really wants to impart. However, the only message I can glean from this film is a world-weary, nihilistic comment that “sometimes people kinda suck.”
Interestingly, though, most of the film’s criticism falls against the Western European mindset and culture. Throughout the film, the people in the United States or in Western Europe come out looking the silliest, meanest, or cruelest. One lengthy bit set on Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district shows a whole lot of people drinking themselves legless, getting into drunken brawls, passing out, and then trying to stagger home with hangovers in the early morning. Another sequence depicts a couple dining at the exclusive New York restaurant The Colony, dining on exotic fare like bugs and canned rattlesnake. A lengthy sequence set in Hawaii shows a hula dancer at a hotel, trying to teach the dance to a bunch of tourists. After commenting on the sacred nature the dance held for native Hawaiians, the narrator wryly commented that “this is now the only such dance left in Hawaii” before panning across a crowd of paunchy tourists clumsily trying to follow along and joking amongst themselves.
Now – if the filmmakers had sustained that narrow focus, and made this more about class differences and Western-European cultural biases, this could have been a very different film. But for much of the film, the real watchword seems to have been trying to Freak Out The Squares with lots of gross stuff. And it is that element which had the most impact, leading not only to several sequels but a whole “mondo” film movement with plenty of exploitative content and “shocking” staged footage.