Wednesday, August 1, 2012

#610: The Organizer

(Mario Monicelli, 1963)

If you were to focus on one or two of the most defining movements of the 20th century, you could do worse than to cite film and unions, two things which unavoidably changed the course of history. And because film was so often driven by socially conscious left-wing ideology, the two movements often intersected; technically, I suppose, you could argue that the first film ever shot - Exiting the Factory - predicted this essential relationship. This tradition ran through the course of the century, from The Grapes of Wrath to Norma Rae and Harlan County, U.S.A. up through Bread and Roses in 2000.

But of all the films that focus on union organizing, The Organizer is perhaps the most interesting and compelling. This is partially because the film focuses on the earliest years of the worker's rights movement and because the film is able to so effortlessly cover many of the notable characters seen in other films - not just the organizer himself (played by a pitch-perfect Marcello Mastroianni), but the poor immigrant who can't afford to strike, the bumbling worker who stumbles into a position of power, the middle man who cunningly aligns himself with each side, and many more. But it's the ending of the film - where the workers don't just lose but see a child join their ranks, ensuring that the cycle continues - that makes the movie stand out. We know (as did audiences when the film was released) that this defeat will be, historically speaking, relatively short-lived, so the ending is not all tragedy. But the failure is a powerful reminder of the sacrifices necessary for any kind of shift in power. In many fields in the US, unions have gained so much power that people have become complacent about their rights, leading to a crisis of faith in the necessity of organizing. Monicelli's film - in which workers strive for a thirteen-hour work day - is a stark reminder of the importance of the fight.

In terms of entertainment value, The Organizer is an admirable dramedy. Monicelli manages to let his star have a bit of shine without letting him overwhelm the other characters, and the plotting is so well constructed that the balance of the film's two competing destinies - that the workers will never give up, just as the owners continue to exploit them wherever they can - remain in constant balance even in the final moments. Certainly the movie's most notable reason for remaining fresh over the years is drawn from its subject's consistent relevancy. But it's The Organizer's story that kept me interested, making its message all the more poignant.

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