Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi are generally acknowledged as the “Godfathers of Mondo” and took a sensationalist approach to documentaries that revelled in bizarre and shocking cultural practices around the world. Mondo Cane (A Dog’s Life, 1962) was their wildly popular debut film and it spawned a new genre that included their later work Women of the World (1963), Mondo Cane 2 (1963), Africa Addio aka Africa: Blood and Guts (1966) and Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971), a critically reviled and polarizing account of the origins of the American slave trade that was filmed as a you-are-there dramatization. What is usually left out of the Jacopetti-Prosperi backstory are the contributions of Paolo Cavara, who co-directed and co-wrote Mondo Cane and Women of the World with Jacopetti. He broke off his association with the other two filmmakers after their second collaboration and went solo with two more Mondo films (Malamondo , Witchdoctor in Tails ) before turning his camera on a fictionalized version of himself in The Wild Eye (L’occhio Selvaggio, 1967), an unforgiving portrait of a ruthless Mondo filmmaker that should be better known today.
Released by American International Pictures, The Wild Eye arrived near the end of the Mondo movie craze of the sixties but attracted little attention because it was not an exploitation documentary. Instead, it followed the globe-trotting adventures of a filmmaker named Paolo (Philippe Leroy) who is only interested in capturing extreme sights and sounds for a sensation hungry audience, even if it means having to stage the events for the camera. In his opinion, “audiences are masochistic and sadistic. A pretty girl with a rifle arouses their masochism; the same girl helpless and unarmed, their sadism. There are no good or bad films. There are just those with or without the occasional stimulation that makes the public digest the rest of the film.”
Accompanying Paolo on his quest are his loyal but wary cameraman Valentino (Gabriele Tinti) and Rossi (Giorgio Gargiullo), a regular Mr. Fix-it style producer who helps grease the wheels of the permit and production process.
At the start of the movie, Paolo is leading a small safari deep into the desert as he films the pursuit of a frantic gazelle, trying to escape the jeep. Barbara Bates (Delia Boccardo), one of the tourists in the group, protests the treatment of the animal and pulls the key out of the ignition. When Paolo tries to start the jeep again, he discovers they are out of gas and the group is forced to walk some sixty miles out of the desert to be rescued. Things are looking grim as the stragglers become blistered by the sun and dehydrated but that doesn’t stop Paolo from filming their desperate situation. He says to the group, “If any of you in this extremely dramatic moment – you must realize the predicament we’re in – care to record a statement of any sort, you can do it now.” Paolo further antagonizes the travelers with hypothetical questions like, “Mrs. Bates, would you be unfaithful to your husband for a glass of water?”
Just as the prospect of a rescue seems hopeless, a jeep appears in the distance and the group is saved from certain death. However, the desert experience ignites a sexual attraction between Paolo and Barbara, who is married but finds herself both attracted and disturbed by the risk-taking filmmaker. She eventually deserts her husband (Lars Bloch) and joins Paolo on a journey to Singapore, where the three man movie team shoot segments for a new project. Among the subjects filmed are a group of deaf mute prostitutes (Paolo proclaims “I want to see how the deaf and dumb make love!”) and a clinic for opium addicts where part of the therapy includes beatings as a distraction from withdrawal symptoms. Naturally, Paolo encourages the clinic director to have his patients viciously flogged for the camera.
Cavara, who died in 1982 at age 56, often denied that he modeled the character of Paolo on himself but some insiders in the Italian film industry believe the real inspiration for the loathsome protagonist was director Gualtiero Jacopetti, whose brash, often foolhardy methods often endangered his own life and that of his film crews. The Wild Eye is as much of an expose about the kind of filmmaker who exploits the worst aspects of human behavior as it is about the pervasive amorality of Mondo movies.
The film hammers home its underlying thematic concerns in the final section when Paolo and crew journey to Vietnam in the hope of capturing even more shocking material such as the burning of a live monk. The small entourage also encounters a deposed sultan living in an empty palace with his harem and pay him to eat live butterflies for the camera but the worst is yet to come. When the filmmakers enter a war zone, they are captured by the Viet Cong, who savagely beat Paolo. Surprisingly, the trio is released because they are Italians, not Americans, but Paolo’s main concern is addressed to Valentino, “Did you get any film of me while I was being beaten?”
[Spoiler alert] Not surprisingly, The Wild Eye culminates in an appropriately grim and thoroughly cynical climax in which Barbara is fatally wounded by falling debris in a bombed-out bar. Paolo rushes to her side but realizing she is dead he orders Valentino to film her lifeless body as tears well up in his eyes but it is all for show. Paolo has not grown and evolved through his experiences but is exactly the same callous, self-absorbed character we met in the opening desert debacle. We even learn later that he arranged for the safari to be stranded without gas or water for the purposes of his movie.
It is not unusual to have the major protagonist in a film portrayed as having no empathy or compassion for his fellow man (see Ace in the Hole or Sweet Smell of Success as evidence) but Paolo might be the supreme hollow man, an amoral narcissistic addicted to filming the worst aspects of life for thrill-seeking voyeurs. In contrast, Barbara is introduced as someone who might exert a more conscientious influence on the entourage while serving as the film’s moral center. Unfortunately, she puts up little resistance to Paolo’s macho posturing and easily caves in to his grand scheme, which means becoming his lover and agreeing to appear in his next opus as a sideline observer who is shocked and upset over what he films. This proves to be a missed opportunity in the film’s conception and the climax would have been more impactful if Barbara had been depicted with more depth and intelligence instead of some vapid cipher.
Unfortunately, her credibility slowly dissolves as we see her frolicking in the surf with Paolo or making love with him during downtime in their travels. On the other hand, Barbara fills the bill as the requisite eye candy for an exploitation film and she seems to confirm Paolo’s opinion that women are little more than lovely accessories for a big game hunter like himself. Cavara is no feminist either as noted by his sexist and exploitative treatment of the opposite sex through his Jacopetti-Prosperi collaborations on Mondo Cane and Women of the World. After all, consider his approved tag line for The Wild Eye theatrical poster: “He used a camera like most men use a woman – and a woman like something you’d keep in a cage!”
Certainly nothing about The Wild Eye is subtle and it would never be mistaken for art house fare but it would still make an intriguing companion feature to Mondo Cane or some other shockumentary because it actually places Mondo moviemakers in the proper context as venal showmen. Of particular interest is the relentlessly dark, doom-laden screenplay co-written by Cavara with Tonino Guerra (Blow-Up, Amacord) and novelist Alberto Moravia (Two Women, Contempt).
There are other points of interest here as well such as Gianni Marchetti’s seductive soundtrack which has become a classic among Euro lounge music scores. Samplings of bossa nova, West Coast cocktail jazz and melodramatic piano flourishes intermingle with blatant imitations of songs like the Peter Gunn theme song or the lush choruses from Francis Lai’s score for A Man and a Woman (1966).
Philippe Leroy also deserves kudos for his memorable portrayal of Paolo, a man you love to hate. It might be a one-note performance but Leroy continues to find ways to make his character more unappealing and repugnant than you ever thought possible in scene after scene. Cavara once stated, “Reality is boring…lies are entertaining” and Leroy’s character espouses this creed in action and deed. When he fails at capturing a live event, he resorts to faking or manipulating reality to get his version of the truth.
The Wild Eye marked Cavara’s first foray into feature filmmaking after two solo efforts in the shockumentary category, neither of which were box office hits. Malamondo (1964) was a relatively tame and uninspired survey of bizarre practices in Europe narrated by Marvin Miller but its main interest is an excellent score by Ennio Morricone. His follow-up film, Witchdoctor in Tails (1966), narrated by George Sanders, is even more obscure and focused on tribal rites and customs in Africa such as snake charmers, firewalkers and body piercings.
Strangely enough, Cavara is better known today for two giallo thrillers he directed in the seventies instead of his Mondo movie contributions. Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971) is an extremely stylish but misogynistic murder mystery starring Giancarlo Giannini (before his fame via the films of Lina Wertmuller), Claudine Auger and Barbara Bouchet. Plot of Fear (E Tanta Paura, 1976) features a murderer inspired by a children’s book but is much closer in execution to a police procedural drama instead of a giallo.
Other genre efforts by Cavara include a WW2 drama The Ravine (La Cattura, 1969) with David McCallum, the spaghetti western, Deaf Smith & Johnny Ears (1973) starring Franco Nero and Anthony Quinn, and a handful of Italian sex comedies like Virility (1974). Compared to these other efforts, The Wild Eye is much more ambitious and thought-provoking and might have led to more interesting projects if it had become successful.
After a brief run at a few grindhouse venues and drive-ins across the U.S. in 1967, The Wild Eye disappeared from public view from many years. It finally resurfaced on DVD and Blu-ray in a limited edition from Scorpion Films in November 2015 and included both an English language option and an Italian one with English subtitles. The German label Camera Obscura also announced it planned to release The Wild Eye on Blu-ray in the near future but no street date has been confirmed.
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