Gualtiero Jacopetti was born in Barga, in Northern Tuscany, in 1919. During World War II, he served in the Italian Resistance to fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. After the war, on the advice of his friend and mentor Indro Montanelli, he began to work as a journalist. He co-founded the influential liberal newsweekly Cronache (considered to be a direct predecessor to l'Espresso) in 1953, only to be forced to shut down production after publishing risque photographs of actress Sophia Loren which caused the paper to be charged with manufacturing and trading pornographic material (a charge which also earned Jacopetti a year-long prison sentence). He subsequently worked as a journalist, editor, newsreel writer, actor and short-subject film maker. He also worked on screenplays for René Clément (The Joy of Living, 1961) and Alessandro Blasetti (Europa Di Notte, 1959) before undertaking his own career as a director.
In 1960, he approached his colleagues Franco Prosperi and Paolo Cavara with the unusual idea of making an "anti-documentary". The result, which premiered in 1962, was Mondo Cane (which roughly translates to "A Dog's World," a minor curse in Italian), a non-narrative compilation of shocking and unusual footage from around the world. It premiered at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival, where it was well-received and even nominated for the Palme d'Or. The theme song, More (Theme from Mondo Cane) by Italian composer Riz Ortolani was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song in 1963, the year of its premier in the United States.
The success of Mondo Cane inspired an entire genre of documentaries featuring lurid or shocking subjects, which came to be known as Mondo film. Jacopetti and Prosperi (who would become film-making partners for the remainder of Jacopetti's directorial career) went on to make several more entries into this genre, including La donna nel mondo (Women of the World), (with Paolo Cavara) Mondo Cane 2, Africa Addio and the faux-documentary Addio Zio Tom. In the 2003 documentary The Godfathers of Mondo, Jacopetti describes the style they used to make these films: “Slip in, ask, never pay, never reenact.”
During the filming of Africa Addio—which includes footage of intense fighting and mass death in the Mau Mau uprising, the Zanzibar revolution, the Simba Rebellion, and other post-colonial Africa conflicts—the crew was interrogated in Zaire, and arrested and nearly executed in Tanzania, before an army official intervened on their behalf, shouting “Stop — they’re not whites, they’re Italians.” A scene depicting the execution of a Simba rebel during the Simba Rebellion in Republic of the Congo (Léopoldville) resulted in Jacopetti being charged with murder in Italy; he was acquitted after producing documents demonstrating the footage had not been staged for the cameras.
Following the critical and commercial failure of the faux-documentary Goodbye Uncle Tom" (Addio Zio Tom) (which reviewer Roger Ebert called "...the most disgusting, contemptuous insult to decency ever to masquerade as a documentary,") Jacopetti and Prosperi attempted a fictional film, 1975's Mondo Candido (a modern version of Candide by French Philosopher Voltaire). Jacopetti went on to write (but not direct) one further documentary, 1981's Fangio: Una vita a 300 all'ora (which follows the career of Formula One driver Juan Manuel Fangio) before returning to print media for the remainder of his career.
Jacopetti died August 17, 2011 at the age of 91. Italian press articles reported that he had wished to be buried next to one-time girlfriend Belinda Lee, who died in 1961 in a car accident in which Jacopetti was also hurt.
Despite their early success with Mondo Cane, controversy followed Jacopetti and Prosperi's careers. New York Times reviewer Pauline Kael dismissed Mondo Cane, claiming that its advocates were, “too restless and apathetic to pay attention to motivations and complications, cause and effect.” Criticism became even more pronounced with Africa Addio, which Roger Ebert called "brutal, dishonest, and racist" and claims that it "slanders a continent". Ebert's review was not based on the original film but on an edited version for US audiences. This version was edited and translated without the approval of Jacopetti. Indeed, the differences are such that Jacopetti has called this film a "betrayal" of the original idea. Notable differences are thus present between the Italian and English-language versions in terms of the text of the film. Many advocates of the film feel that it has unfairly maligned the original intentions of the filmmakers. Charges of racism and claims that elements of their film were staged or manufactured by the directors plagued them over the years, though they strongly denied both charges.
Jacopetti claimed his intent was to create films that “...would play on the big screen whose subject was reality.” In the 2003 documentary The Godfathers of Mondo, Prosperi went on to claim criticism of their work was due to the fact that, "The public was not ready for this kind of truth." Both directors denied staging anything for their films, with the exception of Mondo Cane 2 which they acknowledge does contain some staged or recreated footage.Mondo Cane, 1962
La donna nel mondo (Women of the World), 1963
Mondo Cane 2, 1963
Africa Addio (Africa Blood and Guts or Farewell Africa), 1966
Addio zio Tom (Goodbye Uncle Tom), 1971
Mondo candido, 1975