Mario Monicelli, one of the most prolific and popular directors of post-war Italian cinema, never earned a reputation in the U.S. like his compadre, Federico Fellini, despite the international success of numerous films, from Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) to A Very Petit Bourgeois (1977). Perhaps it’s because his preferred genre was comedy, notably the commedia all’italiana, a mix of social satire, clownish comedy, streetwise attitude, and earthy compassion, that he helped pioneer. But satire doesn’t always export outside of its culture and comedy isn’t often granted the same respect as “serious” drama and his modest, gentle visual style never attracted the attention of his flamboyant countrymen.
The Organizer (1963) brings the sensibility of commedia all’italiana to social drama. The story of a labor strike among the socially tight but politically disorganized community to textile workers in a mill outside of Turin in the late 1800s, this is not a political statement nor a social protest. It is lively, funny, chaotic, appreciative of the foibles and failures of the frustrated collective, if you can call them that. Not really a union by any definition, the workers meet after another 14 hour day in which one of their own was maimed by a machine to brainstorm a response. Half of them can neither read nor write and they have all resigned themselves to conditions that demand everything and still keep them in poverty. Their idea of a protest is simply to sound the whistle and walk out an hour early, and they can’t even execute that plan, much to the ire of Pautasso (Folco Lulli), the hot-tempered veteran who volunteers to blow the shift whistle and thus make himself the most visible member of the nascent protesters.
Enter Professor Singaglia (Marcello Mastroianni), a threadbare intellectual riding the rails out of a previous scrape to hide out in this town. The arguments in the schoolhouse rouse him from his sleep in the storeroom and, in the manner of a gently encouraging teacher, builds up their confidence and spurs them on to greater (if still modest) goals, along with a little practical advice in preparing for a long strike. He’s no con man, but his oratory passions sweep them up before they really know what they’re in for. While they lack any faith in their power to effect change, he believes in the inevitability of labor’s collective power. Just maybe not this time around.