There’s an interesting mix of comedy and drama in Mario Monicelli’s 1963 film The Organizer, a handsome populist picture about the fight for workers’ rights in late-nineteenth-century Turin. Monicelli finds absurdity in the actions of both common laborers and their dismissive bosses, and the film’s ostensible titular hero is as bumbling as he is inspiring. But there are real stakes here — the film’s final scene is an undeniable gut-punch — and the intermittent comedy doesn’t lessen their impact.
The textile factory workers who inhabit the film are subjected to crushing work conditions — 14-hour days, a sliver of time for lunch and nonexistent safety regulations. When one of the laborers receives a horrifying injury on the job, the group bands together, determined to enact reform. Their demand: shifts shortened by one hour.
But despite the relative reasonability of the request, their efforts are rebuffed by the management, who cruelly and easily manipulates the workers. It’s not until a professor (a bearded and mischievous Marcello Mastroianni) arrives and organizes a strike that things begin to shift.
Despite its title, The Organizer isn’t really about Mastroianni’s character, who seems like the labor messiah at first, but is soon regarded with suspicion or outright contempt by a number of the workers as the strike stretches on and tangible results seem nonexistent. Monicelli, who wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay with Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli, ensures we never are quite sure ourselves about this man and his intentions. The layered script opens up nicely into an observant, poignant and often quite funny ensemble piece.
It’s to Monicelli’s credit that both broad comedy — like a struggle for covers between Mastroianni and the young, single worker forced to share his bed — and the heart-wrenching — a teenaged worker beats his little brother for underperforming in school, desperate to see him not end up in the factory too — coexist harmoniously in The Organizer. The result is a film that feels honest to real life and is a consistently moving portrayal of the fight for labor rights when such a concept barely existed.