FAREWELL UNCLE TOM: Vile, Cruel, Amazing

This week Fantastic Fest is showing one of the most difficult and depraved movies of all time.

You probably should not see Addio Zio Tom (or Farewell Uncle Tom or Goodbye Uncle Tom as it is often translated). It is a vile, cruel movie, a film that is exploitative in ways that will make even the most hardened connoisseur of envelope-obliterating cinema feel sick and violated. It is a film that feels like true evil, a film that makes the viewer complicit in its atrocities. It is also an extraordinarily well-made film, an almost virulently effective film and a movie that was made, the directors claim, to spread an anti-racist message.

Those directors were Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, the Italian masterminds behind Mondo Cane, the first great ‘shockumentary.’ That film, a loosely structured montage of shocking, cruel and bizarre cultural customs around the world, premiered at Cannes and caught the imagination of the Western world. The movie itself is just a mix-tape of humanity at its most odd, ranging from drunken Germans to cargo cult New Guineans to bull-fighting Spaniards to Malaysian shark fishermen.

The world offered much to Jacopetti and Prosperi, and they took their cameras to document the strange and violent things it had to offer. They ended up competing in a genre they created, the ‘Mondo movie,’ and so they had to find more and more extreme topics to share. In Africa Addio (released in the US as Africa: Blood and Guts) they explored the post-colonial war zones of Africa…. with their sympathies seemingly with colonialism (“Europe has abandoned her baby!” intones the English translation narrator. Jacopetti later claimed the film was a condemnation of Europe for leaving Africa in bad shape in the post-colonial era). Jacopetti faced murder charges in Italy after it was claimed that the filmed execution of a Congolese rebel had been performed for his cameras.

With Mondo movies everywhere, Jacopetti and Prosperi turned their attention to a new kind of Mondo movie, a hybrid between documentary and fiction. The film was Addio Zio Tom, an exploration of American slavery using actual historical records. The way they decided to make the film is almost hallucinatory in its strangeness: at the beginning of the movie a helicopter containing a time-traveling Italian documentary crew lands on the front lawn of a plantation, looking to film the reality of slavery. That opening shot, scored to the gorgeous sounds of Riz Ortolani’s music, is absolutely beautiful and also horrifying in its wrong-heaedness. It is Addio Zio Tom summed up.

What follows is an atrocity show - rape, slaves having their teeth pulled in graphic close-up, more rape, whippings and beating, child rape, degradations and dehumanization so profound and extreme that even the Marquis de Sade might squirm upon seeing it, even more rape, castration and perhaps a little more sexual assault to top it all off.

As if the imagery itself - assaultive, graphic, impeccably shot and framed - wasn’t enough, the movie was made in Haiti with the blessings of dictator Papa Doc Duvalier. The Italians dined with the tyrant and he made available to them everything they wanted, including hundreds of Haitians who worked for pennies, being demeaned and brutalized on film in order to show how wrong it is to demean and brutalize people. The expose about slavery was made using almost slave conditions.

The original cut of the film ends in the modern day, as a radical black activist reads William Styron’s The Confessions Of Nat Turner and dreams of himself breaking into a suburban white home and beating a white baby to bloody death, slamming it against a wall again and again. This is supposed to be the… warning? to white America - the sins of your past will come back for you. Apparently the filmmakers thought they were ending the film on a note of righteous vengeance, but it could also be construed as a conservative's nightmare, the uprising they have been fearing since the Civil Rights era.

The ending was considered too inflammatory for America of 1971, a nation where armed Black Panthers still walked the streets. The US version was trimmed by almost 14 minutes, and all of the savage comeuppance was cut, rendering the movie’s mixed message even more confusing. The film was two hours of extreme violence and horror, but without the small amount of catharsis provided by that finale.

There are two things that make Addio Zio Tom intriguing for the truly hardened viewer. For one, it is incredibly well-made. The movie puts you through the wringer, leaving you feeling dizzy and sick. Many exploitation films presented horrors in a way that made them titillating or tantalizing, but Addio Zio Tom truly repulses. Sweaty and grungy and scorched by hate, the film feels so present and immediate that you want to reach through the screen to stop the torture. That alone makes it a work of cinema that matters, in its own strange way.

But more than that it’s the profound cognitive dissonance at the heart of Addio Zio Tom that makes it fascinating in the modern day. I truly believe that Jacopetti and Prosperi were, as they later claimed, making an anti-racism movie, much as they believed Africa Addio was a critique of  colonialism. These guys truly thought they were making a profound statement. Addio Zio Tom is a real world example of how the best intentions can go apocalyptically awry, especially when those best intentions come from a condescending, patriarchal perspective. For all of the suffering and abuse Jacopetti and Prosperi show us they somehow never thought to bring us the humanity of the sufferers. The result is evil on celluloid; while Jacopetti denied any role in the execution of the rebel in Africa Addio there’s no question of his involvement in the depravity here, visited upon barely paid poverty-stricken Haitians. Even though there’s a lot of movie magic on display there is a sense of despair and humiliation coming from these people that seems beyond acting.

Addio Zio Tom was not a hit. Roger Ebert despised it, and Pauline Kael called it racist. But get this: so did David Duke, who claimed the film was an incitement to get blacks to rise up against whites. Somehow Jacopetti and Prosperi had managed to make a message movie that offended both progressives and racists. That alone is a certain kind of perverse accomplishment.

In 2015 Addio Zio Tom resonates in unexpected ways. We're in the midst of a new civil rights struggle, as the Black Lives Matter movement has shined a spotlight on the continuing systemic inequalities facing black Americans, as well as highlighting the vicious violence visited upon black citizens by the police apparatus of the country. The howl of rage on which Addio Zio Tom ends, the baby bashing extremity of it, echoes in modern ears with stinging clarity. The nerve at which Addio Zio Tom tugs is still incredibly raw, 40 years after its release.

You probably shouldn’t see Addio Zio Tom. But if you do, go in prepared to look straight into the abyss, right into the eyes of a grotesquerie just this side of a snuff film with a moral message. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, every cinema in the underworld must be playing Addio Zio Tom.

If you are up for the harrowing challenge of Addio Zio Tom it plays at Fantastic Fest this Sunday at 2:15pm.