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Gualtiero Jacopetti; directed ‘Mondo Cane’ films

Gualtiero Jacopetti with actress Monica Vitti at a party in 1968. Gualtiero Jacopetti with actress Monica Vitti at a party in 1968. (Gianni Foggia/Associated Press)
By Douglas Martin
New York Times / August 20, 2011

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NEW YORK - Gualtiero Jacopetti, a filmmaker who titillated and disgusted moviegoers by roaming the globe to document bizarre, not to say creepy, phenomena - a chicken that smokes cigarettes, for instance - in the movie “Mondo Cane’’ and its sequels, died Wednesday at his home in Rome. He was 91.

Mr. Jacopetti liked to say he had invented the “antidocumentary’’ or the “shockumentary’’ with “Mondo Cane,’’ which was unveiled, and well received, at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival.

He showed Italian villagers slicing themselves with glass in observance of Good Friday, the French painter Yves Klein using naked women as paintbrushes, and New Yorkers dining on insects in a posh restaurant.

The narration was droll, and the images were ironic: A bereaved mother in New Guinea nurses a suckling pig, immediately followed by the wholesale slaughter of pigs for an orgy of feasting in the same region. Mr. Jacopetti called such transitions “shock cuts.’’

Another scene shows people mourning in a pet cemetery in Pasadena, Calif. Cut to shots of customers savoring roast dog at a Taiwanese restaurant.

Mr. Jacopetti made “Mondo Cane,’’ which translates as “a dog’s world,’’ with Franco Prosperi and Paolo Cavara, who also collaborated with him on other films. It was distinguished by a jazzy score by Nino Oliviero and Riz Ortolani, whose theme song, “More,’’ was nominated for an Academy Award and recorded by Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, and many others.

“Mondo Cane’’ was named best production by the Academy of Italian Cinema, and was a big financial success worldwide. Mr. Jacopetti went on to make a sequel, “Mondo Cane 2’’ (1963), and, in between, “Women of the World’’ (1963), which looked at women with the same lurid scrutiny found in the “Mondo’’ films.

A newspaper advertisement assured viewers they had seen nothing quite like “Women of the World,’’ then described the movie: “Women in blind love and blistering hate, women carnal and capricious, women at their most primitive and their most sophisticated, women as they are in every part of the world.’’

Some reviewers suggested that the moviemakers visited 39 countries on five continents mainly to discover that women everywhere seem to have lots of skin when photographed with few or no clothes.

But they also showed Bedouin women braving gunfire in Algeria to gather shell casings for a living; an aging Scotsman who has 84 wives on the tiny island of Iwa; and Elizabeth Rudel Smith, former treasurer of the United States - all clothed.

Fundamentally, Mr. Jacopetti considered himself a journalist, which he had formerly been. He said his goal was to make “a film that would play on the big screen whose subject was reality.’’ But his audiences wanted to be entertained as much as informed, and a huge wave of imitation “Mondo’’ movies arose to satisfy them.

Russ Meyer, a director known for his films featuring large-breasted women, made “Mondo Topless’’ in 1966. Three years later, the idiosyncratic director John Waters made the cult hit “Mondo Trasho.’’

Americans even took the Italian word for world and made it an all-purpose adjective. Tony Thorne in his “Bloomsbury Dictionary of Modern Slang’’ said this was usually done by adding a “mock-Latin ‘o’ ending, as in ‘mondo-sleazo’ or ‘mondo-cheapo.’’’ A book of pop-culture essays published in Canada in 1996 was called “Mondo-Canuck.’’

Mr. Jacopetti was sometimes accused of staging some of the strange things he filmed. He admitted to only one reenactment: a scene in “Mondo Cane 2’’ based on the self-immolation of a Vietnamese monk, seen everywhere in an Associated Press photo.

Among the memorable scenes in “Mondo Cane 2’’ was that of a group of Italian villagers smashing in a garage door with their heads in an annual ritual. Some bleed from their ears and mouths, go into convulsions, and have to be carried off. Once inside, the men and the rest of the villagers eat until they’re sick.

In 1966, Mr. Jacopetti made “Africa Addio’’ (“Goodbye, Africa’’), which depicted violent convulsions in postcolonial Africa. Accused of colluding with mercenary killers to arrange executions for the benefit of his cameras, he went back to Africa to collect testimony to clear his name.

In 1971, he and Prosperi made “Goodbye, Uncle Tom,’’ in which the two portray filmmakers who journey back in time to chronicle slavery in America before the Civil War.