World Cinema: Let’s go Mondo

Bizarre horror The Human Centipede may be shocking audiences everywhere but, as Nick explains, mondo cinema has been doing the same thing since the 60s...

Mondo Cane (1962)

In a week that sees the release of the much talked about The Human Centipede, it seems only right that I talk about the weirder side of World Cinema. After-all, it is a fact I have mentioned several times over the last ten weeks. It is the unknown that draws us to seek out different cultures’ cinema, and more often than not, it is the less salubrious unknown which intrigues and interests, or otherwise repulses.

Not long ago, I discussed shock tactics in cinema and I can only reiterate those points again. Shocking scenes make people talk about a film and, over time, can even shape perception of an entire culture’s cinema. But while the odd scene here and there, or even a shocking premise, makes a film debased or too weird for wider consumption, what about those films that are dedicated to causing outrage? The films that dare a viewer to watch them? These films have a term all of their own, and that is mondo cinema.

‘Mondo’ is, aptly, Italian for ‘world’. It is widely used these days to describe all sorts of outside-the-norm cinema. Anything which can be described as ‘wild’, ‘shocking’, ‘exploitation’ or ‘taboo’ often falls under its umbrella. Even a film distribution company uses the name to promote its brand of slightly mental world cinema (of which a cherished ex-housemate owned several), while the term ‘mondo’ has even slipped into everyday use to describe something a bit different. But where did it all start? Well, I have that answer for you right here.

Mondo film was not originally designed to be a catch-all term for ‘weird and wild’ flicks. It is, in fact, a sub-genre of the wider exploitation film, but one that has effectively become the father. In its early days, mondo was a form of documentary (often called shockumentary) which heavily featured sex and death, although increasingly this leaned towards death.

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Although there were earlier films featuring this technique and subject matter, the first true mondo film was Mondo Cane (1962). The film takes the form of a travelogue, and shows unrelated scenes from around the world, designed to shock and excite Western audiences, such as tribal dances or the Chinese eating dogs. Yeah, doesn’t sound too crazy, does it?

However, the film proved such a success that it kickstarted the whole shockumentary genre, and with it, the accusations of condescension and even racism that accompany it to this day.

For those interested in seeking out more, then Mondo Cane was followed by a sequel (the imaginatively titled Mondo Cane II), and then a whole raft of films inspired by it: Mondo Bizarro, Mondo Hollywood, Mondo Teeno and Russ Meyer’s Mondo Topless.

However, by the eighties, the mondo prefix had begun to fall out of fashion, and instead of an exploitation doc focusing on various cultures of the world, it instead began to resemble anything that was deemed horrific or morbid.

Perhaps a perfect example of this was the German name for Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left. Despite being a straightforward horror, it was renamed Mondo Brutale to give it that extra air of danger and curiosity.

The genre then slipped into being death films (notably the Faces Of Death series) before re-emerging as the wider catch-all term used to describe shocking cinema. It is interesting to chart this transformation of the genre and what can be construed as a misuse of the term ‘mondo’.

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What was the name of a, frankly, quite innocent film now stands for something much more extreme, but also bafflingly retains something of its kitschy original nature. These days, describing something as mondo attaches a certain filmic cultural cachet to it, and also gives the audience certain expectations. You may be appalled, but you’ll probably enjoy yourself at the same time.

It is almost unique in this respect. Can any other genre cover such a wide base beyond its initial remit, yet still produce such an identifiable sense of itself?

Referencing back to The Human Centipede, it is probably a status that recent torture porn will never acquire. It doesn’t present the same sense of otherness for a world cinema film distribution company! It is also too narrow a genre to move beyond its own confines.

Mondo was able to adapt and change to suit an audience’s needs. When it looked dead and buried (excuse the pun) and mired in the death film of the 80s, it exploded from being a genre to a term. It recaptured the global nature of its own name and absorbed many genres. Mondo is, indeed, as weird and wild as is claimed.

Looking Forward

The Human Centipede

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I’m going to say it right now, I have no intention of watching this. However, many of you do, so it would be remiss of me not to put it down. Plus, it has inspired this week’s effort up above. Anyway, for those who don’t know what its about: two girls end up in a crazy doctor’s house in the rain. What happens to them? The clue is in the title…

Pianomania

At the other end of the scale (boom boom) is this charming little film. Proving the diversity of world cinema is Pianomania, the tale of a piano tuner, Stephan Knüpfer, who is dedicated to creating the most beautiful sounding pianos on the planet and, in fact, devotes a year of his life to producing an instrument worthy of playing an unfinished masterpiece by Bach.

Despite not sounding like blockbuster material, it truly is a engrossing piece of work that sweeps you up in the drama and magic of the subject.

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The film charts the tension of readying the piano in time for the performance, but also charts the life of Knüpfer, a man who expresses the joy of music in poetic terms which make you want to leap up and play something. Or listen to a piano tuned by him!

The film has swept up awards, including the Golden Gate at the prestigious San Francisco Film Festival.

Both these films are released on August 20th in the UK.

Looking Back

Mr Mike’s Mondo Video (1979, directed by Michael O’Donoghue)

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Okay, so its an American film made by the Saturday Night Live cast of that time. But it’s so closely in tune with the wider sensibilities inspired by Mondo Cane that it seems wrong not to put it here, especially as mondo cinema has become, in many ways, equally an American staple over the years.

Anyway, I digress. Mr Mike’s Mondo Video is a series of sketches showing various comedians (such as Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray) and musicians (the lovely Debbie Harry) putting on stunts. A bit like Jackass, except somewhat more highbrow.

The sketches are a bit hit and miss, but the entire thing is shot through with a surreal quality that, at times, make you question whether you are watching a parody of the original mondo film, or instead watching the next evolution of the aforementioned genre.

The film caused controversy of its own on release, as it was banned by the NBC network and ran into legal problems with a Sid Vicious version of My Way. It has recently been released onto DVD and remains a curio full of talent and imagination.