Before Cannibal Holocaust there was The Wild Eye.
For this 1967 films presents an indictment of the mondo film-makers mentality but, like its later counterpart, uncomfortably sometimes comes perilously close to becoming what it seeks to condemn – albeit with this also having the effect of implicitly asking the audience to question their own motives in viewing such material.
Director Paolo Cavara was certainly well-placed to make the film, having served as assistant to Prosperi and Jacopetti. Having become increasingly dissatisfied with their methods he attempted to put his past behind him, here presenting several scenarios and situations clearly derived from the Mondo Cane films and Africa Addio to illustrate his former colleagues working methods.
The film opens in the savannah, with a scene that could almost have been taken from a behind-the-scenes or making-of type documentary on Africa Addio.
The filmmaking crew, comprising director Paolo (Philippe Leroy) and cameraman Valentino (Gabriele Tinti) relentlessly pursue a gazelle in their jeep with the intention of making its heart burst, much to the distress of Barbara (Delia Boccardo).
Barbara: “I can't stand to see that poor animal suffer.”
Paolo: “Then shut your eyes.”
While Prosperi and Jacopetti's film doesn't feature the exact same image, it is full of hunting and safari sequences where the coincidental presence of the filmmakers as yet another slaughter takes place cumulatively emerges as contrived.
It becomes apparent, however, that Paolo – the match with the director's own forename almost too obvious to be worth mentioning, though his own role in relation to his former colleagues films would seem to have been more like that of Valentino, the hired hand doing what he is told in an only obeying orders way – is focussed less on cruelty to animals than mankind, as he then stages the jeep's running out of petrol to make the safari party endure a dangerous trek through the drylands with inadequate supplies of water to add a bit more drama to the material, filming at opportune moments along the way.
With some of the party fearing imminent death, Paolo even tries to persuade them to make last confessions to the camera. “If any of you, in this extremely dramatic moment – you must realise the predicament we're in – would care to record a statement of any sort, you can do it now.”
A multiplicity of wild / savage eyes
Already, however, we have also got an indication of where the filmmakers cannot go, insofar as the mise en scène within the chase sequence contained shots taken from multiple points of view to indicate that there was in fact a second jeep and camera crew always present at the scene but unacknowledged, namely that of Cavara and company, recording Paolo.
The film's limit point is thus established: if The Wild Eye proceed to present the diegetic Paolo's Nietzschean “gaze into the abyss,” his extra-diegetic counterpart does not allow us a gaze into the film's own potential mise-en-abyme. Situated at the crossover between popular and critical cinemas, we are not about to get a more thoroughgoing examination of the roles played by editing, post-synchronised sound and the addition of empathetic musical cues in the construction of the film expeience. Dziga-Vertov Group era Godard it is not.
Having gotten this criticism out of the way – and admittedly only a criticism if one takes an ultramontane view of critical cinema, taking a preaching to the converted film like Wind from the East as the ideal over a mass appeal one like A Bullet for the General – it has to be acknowledged that The Wild Eye works well both as expose of Jacopetti and Prosperi's practices and as thought-provoking entertainment, not least for making us think about exactly what the term entertainment means when the mondo film and its offshoots, all the way down to today's 'reality television' are considered.
After the group have been rescued – as Paolo and Valentino always knew they would – the episodic, travelogue nature of the narrative is established, along with a romantic subplot between the Paolo and Barbara, with whom he has become obsessed in an otherwise uncharacteristic display of emotion and lack of professionalism. (One wonders if there's here a roman a clef element to the piece, that Barbara might represent Belinda Lee to Paolo's Jacopetti.)
Paolo pursues Barbara and her husband to Egypt and soon persuades Barbara, who still has not realised that he staged the desert incident, to come with him to Singapore and continue to appear in episodes of his documentary, as “the straight-laced English woman, who is always being shocked at the same time as she is succumbing to the so-called lure of the orient.”
An 'exotic,' 'oriental' image
After a spot of sightseeing in Singapore, Paolo is soon back at work, having Valentino film scenes of mute prostitutes negotiating with their clients using sign before then deciding that no-one would believe the footage – “Reality is boring, lies are entertaining,” as he later summarises – and finding a drugs rehabilitation program that can be more readily sensationalised:
“What means have you to help these opium addicts?”
“With whatever little charity we receive.”
“Look I'm ready to make charity enough to get these gentlemen fat as Buddhas. Of course, I'll have to make some changes when I shoot, if you agree. But you'll be satisfied.”
This cues in a nightmarish scene of the men, lying on the floor, having their cravings whipped out of them as the still-credulous Barbara looks on in horror. (“Take Barbara as a contrast now and then,” instructs Paolo to Valentino, ever-alert to the cinematic possibilities of getting “a good scene.”)
The rest of the film continues in much the same way, as we witness – amongst other scenes – Paolo trying to persuade a Buddhist priest to immolate himself for the camera in what is likely a reference to Mondo Cane 2's reconstruction of the same famous image; negotiating with a group of soldiers to have them execute their prisoners against a wall where the composition is more photogenic, implying the degree to which Jacopetti and Prosperi may have been complicit in a similar scene in Africa Addio; and, as the grand finale, withholding knowledge of a terrorist bombing so that he can have his camera set up beforehand to capture the carnage as it happens.
Within the parameters outlined, the filmmakers scarcely put a foot wrong, the mise en scène convicingly conveying the anti-mondo message. The dialogue, however, is perhaps a touch heavy at times, over-stating what we have already obtained via the camera, editing and scoring. (Interestingly the highly-regarded Italian author and intellectual Alberto Moravia has a credit for contributing to the writing.)
The uniformly solid performances help to get round this didactic element somewhat. Leroy and Tinti could always be relied upon when playing cynical or jaded characters, with the former, much like in Femina Ridens, making his more excessive lines that bit more credible than they would otherwise be by convincing us that they are expressions of his more extreme character. (“I have decided for once and for all where my place in life is – with the bosses. And I'm not ashamed of it like many others.”) Boccarro delivers a remarkly assured, mature performance given her age at the time, 19, giving Barbara an adult understanding of interpersonal relationships and a youthful idealism and naïvete as to how the world as a whole tends to work.
Recommended; hopefully someone will put out a proper DVD version.