The Organizer

Italian director Mario Monicelli is getting a full retrospect at Film Forum right now, and I for one have signed up for a crash course. Last night was The Organizer (I Compagni, 1963). Written by Monicelli with the screenwriting team of Age & Scarpelli, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay – a real head-scratcher, but I digress.

"Marcello! Marcello!" La dolce vita, this ain't.

“Marcello! Marcello!” La dolce vita, this ain’t.

Such an easy-to-like film, and yet it kept getting deeper the more I thought about it afterward. Italian viewers around this time had already seen strike films and were familiar with the hagiography of the socialist movement, so setting a bittersweet comedy inside a textile strike in Turin in the 1890s was presumably a little subversive, tweaking the Marxist orthodoxy, and yet you sympathize with the strikers the entire time.

Working 14 hour days, the workers decide to walk off an hour early one day, but botch the signal, and afterwards a finger-pointing match ends in a snowball fight into which a professor-labor organizer on the run from the law arrives. The fact that the nerdy martyr-for-the-movement Professor Sinigaglia is played by none other than Marcello Mastroianni, otherwise the embodiment of mid-century cool, is just the first delicious thing about this film.

Going back to the Neorealists, the Italians were always scrupulous about giving their working-class characters serious flaws. Even when they were sentimentalizing them, you never get the message that there is anything inherently superior about proletarians, and a part of your heart sinks with sympathy whenever a character opts to collaborate with the reactionaries. The Organizer continues that tradition but goes a step further: Professor Sinigaglia, with a face like Trotsky and Lenin, is touchingly unable to say for sure that he’s doing any good, or at least he has gone native in the working class enough that he knows he has no common vocabulary to express it. “Why do I do it? Because I have a head full of foolish ideas,” he says, while sharing a bed with a worker in true 19th Century style. He even steals from his hosts.

I’m a quick study for screenplay structure – who’s the protagonist, and what his or her arc is – but I’m still chewing on this one. Is it the strikers as a group? That elusive, socialist notion of a mass protagonist? I haven’t seen Matewan in fifteen years, but I’d much rather go see The Organizer again tomorrow than try it over again.

What do you think?

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