Monday 1 September 2008

Svezia, inferno e paradiso / Sweden Heaven and Hell

This 1969 mondo is mainly known for one thing: it is the film which gave the world The Muppet Show theme, manha manha. It was written by Piero Umiliani, writer-director Luigi Scattini's composer of choice.

The film itself is very much business as usual, presenting the usual mixture of the defamiliarised, like the state-run alcohol shop, and the downright strange, like the team of the blind divers who salvage things from Stockholm harbour, accompanied by an intermittently informative but mostly sceptical, supercilious and non-sequitur voice-off:

“Sweden covers little more than a quarter million sqaure miles of Europe. Its population is eight million, which means statistically around thirty four and one-quarter inhabitants to every square mile. The quarter inhabitant is an infant. At sixteen he or she acquires the status of a half and at twenty graduates to a whole.”

The titles and customary statement of fact with slow-motion spacehopper action

The specific theme or question tying all the vignettes, which also include the likes of sex education classes, sex shops, swingers' and lesbian clubs, together is that of the title: does the Swedish model society of the time represents more a heaven or a hell on earth?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is a balance of both. Thus, for example, the selling of alcohol through the Systembolaget apparently meant that the authorities avoid supplying registered alcoholics, who would then purchase their booze from other customers allowed to use the store. Others, presumably no longer able to afford the marked-up prices are seen inhaling from petrol soaked rags and eating shoe polish on bread to get a hit. Or, to recast things in sociological terms, it's about the unanticipated consequences of a essentially well-intentioned but at times paternalistic social-democratic welfare state.

Shoe-polish on bread. Mmm

The balance also presumably depends on where and when you were viewing the film, your own social values and – one suspects, having only seen the film in English – the particular slant given the material by the voice-off, Edmond Purdom supplying the English narration and Enrico Maria Salerno the Italian.

For the contemporary viewer at nearly 40 years distance of the material comes across as dated rather than shocking, providing a point of contrast with the harder edged strain of mondo typified by the slaughterfest likes of Africa Addio.

Indeed, the biggest shock may be in the attitudes espoused by the voice-over, with its indiscriminate 'drugs are bad' lumping together of hash and heroin and 'women become lesbians because they've been raped or otherwise actively turned off men, whom they should naturally desire' discourses.

The 'desperate', 'unhappy' 'lesbians'

Another criticism is one endemic to the mondo as a whole, that too often we're shown five minutes of things that that could in themselves have made 'proper' 50 minute documentaries, such as the aforementioned blind divers (what it is it like to experience the world as they do?) or the centre for troubled children (what does the existence of a 12-year-old prostitute say about the failings of the system?)

A cold war era nuclear bunker of a type that may unfortunately be coming back into fashion; note the vehicle at the bottom of the image providing for the rapid tracking style shot

Beyond this the apparent banning of the film in Sweden itself because some material was collected covertly without the informed consent of those caught on camera is also of interest when considering the mondo filone with their tendency to exploit the third world more than the first, whilst also providing another indicator of the strength of the Swedish social democractic idea(l) in its defence of the otherwise relatively powerless. It also provides an intriguing point of connection to Fredrick Wiseman's Titicut Follies, as a 'legitimate' documentary that suffered comparable legal challenges.

By turns intentionally and unintentionally funny, sad, touching and surreal – the opening credits sequence, of identically clad girls on grinning faced orange spacehoppers bouncing in slow motion – Sweden Heaven and Hell remains sufficiently entertaining, for the right and wrong reasons, to be worth a look, while again giving plenty to think about.

[Tim Lucas' s Video Watchblog post on the film:]


Anonymous said...

Especial aptitud de los Directores de Cine Italianos (en este caso el Señor Scattini) para el rodaje de las llamadas "Mondo Movies"

valter said...

Here is the YouTube link to a trailer with the manah manah song!


K H Brown said...

Thanks Valter