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Organizer, The (Blu-ray Review)

7 May, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
In Italian with English subtitles.
Stars Marcello Mastroianni, Annie Girardot, Renato Salvatori.

More than occasionally, Marcello Mastroianni exuded the soul of a character actor in the body of a handsome international leading man, and here we have one of those times courtesy of a most harmonious collaborator with whom he’d scored a previous triumph. Director/co-scripter Mario Monicelli’s 1963 pro-labor rouser with mild comic undertones puts Mastroianni in wire-rim glasses that help make him look positively bohemian — and in hair that wouldn’t exactly serve an old ad for Lustre Crème. And this was just one picture before the actor shared the screen much more characteristically opposite one of the world’s most spectacular natural habitats: Sophia Loren’s iconic undergarments and bare midriff in the Oscar-winning Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.

The Organizer definitely made some critical waves at the time, though in recent times it hasn’t been too easy to see other than in a very worn print that Hen’s Tooth Video put out many years back on VHS — one, if I remember correctly, in which the subtitles kind of bleached into the image, rendering them unreadable. (In any event, it was a terrible copy, even though Hen’s Tooth has put out some spiffy lookers; see their immaculate VistaVision Blu-ray of The Battle of the River Plate.) But seen the right, or Criterion, way, Monicelli’s paean to everyday grunts is a notable look back at strikes and worker duress from a time (around the turn of the 19th century into the 20th) when the “1%” might have said enough was enough when it came to employer abuses.

But maybe not, because the brass in the story’s Turin, Italy, textile mill is a pretty rigid lot, even though the movie treats them with restraint and even tinges of humor. The mill’s production design is as impressively expansive as, say, Jack Lemmon’s insurance office in The Apartment — though, actually, the setting was a real mill the filmmakers found in Yugoslavia. As portrayed, it’s one of those places where you just know that some worker clocked at his 13th hour of the day is inevitably going to lose a limb to machinery — and even before the “professor” played by Mastroianni finally shows up at about a half-hour into the picture, we’ve seen some poor guy lose an arm.

The workers are dissatisfied but have no form to their protest — and then suddenly, there’s this unkempt guy who gets off a train. He looks a little lost, which automatically works for the film. Because though he cajoles them into striking and offers tips on how to finesse a walkout, he is never exactly of them nor does he have universal support. Giving the movie form is its portrayal of town reaction as a whole: army soldiers; the local merchants (who’ll be shafted if they extend grocery credit just before a surprise walkout); and the wives of the strikers. There’s also a rounding-out subplot that works well later in the film: the prof’s relationship with what passes in this town for an upscale hooker (Annie Girardot, a frequent presence in international ’60s cinema). In real life, Girardot, who died last year, was already married to actor Renato Salvatori — who is probably the closest thing to the second male lead in this ensemble work. There’s a telling short scene here where her character goes home in flashy clothes to see her family and is no doubt reminded of what she has escaped (well, for now). She may be a prostitute, but her roots are in the prevalent poverty, and at least she’s probably sleeping on better sheets than the rest of her clan.

Monicelli never overplays his hand, and his good humor helps — though it’s nothing like the gut-busting variety in Big Deal on Madonna Street, which had been a huge worldwide triumph for the filmmaker and Mastroianni five years earlier. The saga has a strong ending too: unsentimental and very credible. Though this is a movie a lot of people probably don’t know, it earned an Oscar nomination in the story/screenplay category — and then, as now, a foreign-language title has to be pretty exemplary to get the academy’s attention outside of the specific foreign-language category. The Organizer also got picked as 1964’s best foreign-language release by the National Board of Review, which is more notable than that designation usually is. Because at the time the Board had a fairly notorious Right-wing faction that might have been expected to skew voting in some other political direction.

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