Criterion // 1963 // 130 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 8th, 2012
A moving ode to the power of the people.
"I won't let you become like me!"
A group of factory workers living in 19th-Century Turin are fed up with their working conditions. For years, they've been forced to work 14-hour days for minimal pay, and they're tired of it. At long last, they've decided to strike and demand that one hour be removed from their work day. Alas, after their first attempt at a strike fails miserably, they begin to wonder whether they should even bother. Ah, but their energy is rekindled by newcomer Professor Sinigaglia (Marcello Mastroianni, La Dolce Vita), who is filled with ambitious ideas about ways in which the workers can carry out a successful strike. Will their efforts succeed?
The Organizer is a rather deceptive title -- intentionally so, actually, as the the film was originally titled I Compagni (or Comrades), but was changed to prevent Americans viewers from being scared off by the scent of Communism. Ironically, in the age of Obama, the word "organizer" now carries its own loaded political implications. Anyway, the title isn't deceptive because it masks the film's Communist leanings (though director Mario Monicelli is indeed an avowed Marxist), but rather because it implies that the film is the story of a single individual. That's entirely untrue. Despite the fact that actor Marcello Mastroianni is easily the film's biggest movie star, he's seamlessly woven into an ensemble piece about the struggles of a community. This isn't a movie about a single human; it's a movie about humanity.
The premise might make The Organizer sound a bit like a propaganda film; a socialistic story of the noble working class doing battle against mustache-twirling business tycoons. To a certain extent, the film does indulge some propagandist elements -- those business tycoons are almost cartoonishly evil -- but the film is too nuanced in its characterization of the working class to come across as a simple-minded message movie. In an interview included on this Blu-ray release, Monicelli says that he primarily enjoys making movies about lovable people who generally fail or fall short of their goals. His characters are not selfless heroes, but flawed, ordinary individuals. He classifies The Organizer as a comedy, but is quick to note that Italian comedy breaks the rules of the genre. "True comedy must have a happy ending," he says, but notes that Italian comedy traditionally contains quite a few dramatic moments and generally ends in tragedy. So you could be forgiven for mistaking the film for a drama, I suppose.
Mastroianni built a career on playing almost impossibly suave characters, so it's a treat to see him play the sort of bedraggled trainwreck of a man he essays in The Organizer. He's an almost hilariously incompetent inspirational figure; a man whose passionate ideals are often undercut by his foolishness and occasional unscrupulousness. In one beautiful little scene, the professor gives a speech to a crowded room of laborers and fills them with hope. When everyone files out, the professor notices that one of the men left their sandwich in the room, and he eagerly claims it as his own. Just as he's about to take his first bite, the worker re-enters the room and declares that he forgot his sandwich. Embarrassed and ashamed, the professor hands the sandwich back to the man. It's a scene that is both funny and tender, a lovely summation of who these people are.
There will undoubtedly be some folks who lose interest the moment they hear the word "Communist," which is a shame. Whatever the personal leanings of the people who made it, The Organizer is first and foremost a tender tribute to the plight of the working man and a valuable illustration of how challenging it can be to make even the smallest step of progress. The goal the laborers are working towards is almost laughably minuscule -- they want to work 13 hours a day rather than 14. And yet even this tiny piece of progress will not be easily won. If wanting these touchingly hapless workers to succeed at their poorly-planned mission is Communistic, then by all means mail me my membership card. While I do think the film's point is undercut slightly by the one-dimensional manner in which it depicts its villains, that weakness is more than compensated for by the three-dimensional manner in which it handles its heroes.
The Organizer: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray) has received a handsome 1080/1.85:1 transfer that is largely free of scratches, flecks or other prominent damage. The black-and-white cinematography is presented with sharpness and depth, and the film's natural grain structure has been beautifully preserved. It's not quite as dazzling as Criterion's transfer of, say, 8 1/2, but it looks quite good. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is also stellar, though it's largely focused on dialogue throughout. There is some prominent sound design on occasion (the factory scenes, the train sequence), but there's little underscore featured. It's a crisp, clean track which gets the job done nicely; free of crackling or hissing. Supplements are disappointingly thin: a 10-minute introduction from Monicelli, a trailer and a leaflet featuring an essay by J. Hoberman. This is a film worthy of a great deal of thoughtful analysis, but these slim pickings will have to do.
The Organizer is an overlooked gem that certainly merits rediscovery. Though its story is set many years ago, it's as relevant now as it was when it was released in 1963. Criterion's Blu-ray looks and sounds good, and the slim supplemental package is compensated for by a reduced price tag.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 1963
MPAA Rating: Not Rated