Professor Giuseppe Sinigaglia (Marcello Mastroianni), the title character in Mario Monicelli’s 1963 film The Organizer (originally I compagni, or The Comrades), is hardly a prepossessing figure. Shabbily attired, with disheveled hair and a scruffy beard, he appears no better, socioeconomically speaking, than any of the textile factory workers who have gathered in the Turin schoolhouse where he’s taken refuge. Even so, when he suddenly pops out from behind a wall to interrupt their meeting and offer his thoughts on their situation, he must look like a potential savior, a kind of deus ex machina, at least to many of them.
It’s the late nineteenth century, and the workers are exhausted by the fourteen-hour shifts they have to put in at the noisy, steam-filled factory, their only respite an all-too-fleeting half-hour lunch break. One evening, an employee is so tired that he briefly closes his eyes and loses focus on his machine. A lapse of a second — but his efforts to correct it cost him his hand. Although his co-workers immediately start contributing money to help him, as is their wont in such cases, that’s no longer enough for some of them. “Do we take ask for more reasonable shifts? No, we can’t take any risks! We take up a collection!” a man named Martinetti (Bernard Blier) chastises the others. As he points out, they can’t possibly scrape up sufficient funds to do any real good for the victim; like the rest of them, he doesn’t even have accident insurance.
Martinetti’s words galvanize his fellow employees, but when they try to discuss their concerns with management, they’re turned away before they can get through the door, advised to forget their nonsense. “Everybody in Turin works the same hours,” foreman Baudet (Vittorio Sanipoli) tells them. Unwilling to give up so easily, they decide to take action by staging a walkout an hour before quitting time — another failure, this time because they lack the courage to go through with it. Disheartened, they congregate in the schoolhouse in order to determine their next move, and it’s there that they first meet Professor Sinigaglia. The professor, it just so happens, is a labor activist, and he suggests that they take a much more drastic step: a strike.
As mentioned earlier, the down-at-heel Sinigaglia doesn’t look like a typical leader, and his behavior and personality quirks add to his awkward, frumpy, almost pathetic air: He attempts to steal a sandwich someone left behind, carries a darning egg in his toiletry kit, plays the piccolo in a restaurant in hopes of earning a few coins. In short, he’s a far cry from Guido Anselmi, the stylish, sophisticated film director Marcello Mastroianni played in Federico Fellini’s 8½, released the same year as The Organizer. Still, in spite of his outward messiness, the professor has one apparent advantage over the director. While Guido is all confusion, Sinigaglia is a man of clear ideas, a man driven by his principles — although that may not be a wholly positive thing.
Someone else in the professor’s position might turn out to be another exploiter of the workers, a mere narcissist who relishes his power and the way he can win people over through his words. Sinigaglia has a gift for rhetoric and persuasion, certainly, but it becomes evident throughout the course of the film that he genuinely believes in the cause and wants to help the employees of the factory (in contrast to Baudet, whose assertions that he sympathizes with their plight ring hollow). Unfortunately, he’s so idealistic that he sometimes gets carried away, sometimes fails to take reality into account. He’s sure, for instance, that the strikebreakers brought in from another town will be perfectly amenable to giving up their new jobs and going home if he just explains the situation to them — this, in spite of the fact that the strikebreakers are starving and desperate themselves. At another point, he urges hard-line tactics against an employee who refuses to stop working; it turns out that this man, a recent arrival from Sicily, lives in dire poverty with his many children and can’t possibly afford to give up his income. The professor’s list of demands — including strike pay and accident insurance — also raises eyebrows among the workers, who are willing to settle for a thirteen-hour day with a full hour for lunch. “How about coffee and pastries too?” one of them asks. “Aren’t we going a bit far?”
Perhaps they realize, more clearly than Sinigaglia does, that the odds are stacked against them. After all, he’s an educated man, which carries with it a certain amount of power; many of them are illiterate and, because they’re unable to write, aren’t even eligible to vote. Education is vital if they want a better life. A teacher named Di Meo (François Périer) offers night classes for adults (albeit with limited success), and teenage employee Omero (Franco Ciolli) is furious when his younger brother wants to drop out of school. “You’re gonna graduate, you hear me? I’ll kill you before I let you do like I did!” Other paths out of the drudgery of factory work are less savory, as in the case of Niobe (Annie Girardot), a prostitute whose father is one of the strikers. Her lifestyle is comparatively glamorous in some respects, with elegant clothing and dinners in restaurants, but no doubt she would have preferred to attain it through different means if she could have. Sinigaglia tells her that one of the reasons he fights for laborers’ rights — besides the fact that he enjoys it — is “to ensure that someday a girl like you won’t have to make the choice you had to.”
However, even with the professor’s learning and leadership, and even with the workers united (for the most part, anyway), it’s not surprising that the scales of power are tipped in management’s favor — illustrated most clearly, perhaps, when the army is called in to prevent the workers from marching on the factory. Significantly, many of these soldiers are just boys, seen horsing around in the barracks minutes earlier; earlier still, one of them served soup to the strikers before an officer put a stop to it. They aren’t even sure why they’ve been sent to the factory at a moment’s notice, though the consequences will be grave. In a sense, the young soldiers aren’t so different from the workers: They’re tools in the hands of their superiors.
For some of the employees, the question of whether Sinigaglia is misusing them, or at least misguiding them, lingers throughout the film. In the final reckoning, does his intervention help their cause or hurt it? That’s hard to say. There’s talk at the end of making him a political candidate, which adds a touch of hope for the future, but the cost of the strike is high, and the final shot suggests a step backwards. Although the film is frequently funny, it’s also sincere, thoughtful and sad, even tragic — much like the professor himself.
This post is part of the Workplace in Film & TV Blogathon, hosted by Moon in Gemini. Click the banner above to see all of the other great posts.