Pauline Kael loathed it with a vengeance and deemed it “an incitement to race war.”
Roger Ebert anointed it a “disgusting, contemptuous insult to decency.”
This week in Austin, a curious crowd got a rare look at cult classic Farewell Uncle Tom (Addio Zio Tom), the controversial 1971 Italian faux-documentary about the evils of American slavery known as one of the most confrontationally provocative movies of all time.
Curated for the genre-centric Fantastic Fest by Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn, the unveiling of Farewell Uncle Tom (also known as Goodbye Uncle Tom) proved why it remains one of the most divisive sleaze classics ever committed to celluloid.
The first time Refn watched it, “I felt like taking a shower because it was filthy,” he admitted with a sly smile. “I was disgusted.”
“Although it’s indefensible in what it’s actually doing I think it’s brilliantly done,” added film historian Alan Jones, whose new coffee table tome on sleaze cinema posters co-written by Refn highlights the notorious Italian title.
The concept was inspired: An Italian film crew time-travels back to the antebellum South to document the putridity of slavery in bald, unflinching detail. Hailing from directors Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, who sought to inject a new twist into the “mondo” shockumentary genre, the film was intended to be an anti-racist condemnation of the evils of slavery in America.
Instead, Jacopetti and Prosperi were met with accusations of gross racism themselves. With good reason: Shot in Haiti with the help and blessing of then-dictator Papa Doc Duvalier, Farewell Uncle Tom was an exploitation movie made possible by the shameless exploitation of hundreds of locals—a film about the systematic dehumanizing of a people that subjected its cast to the same shocking acts it condemned.
Based on historical documents, Farewell Uncle Tom re-enacts the horrors of slavery-era America in discomfiting accuracy from the moment it opens, hilariously enough, on a shot of the film crew’s helicopter gliding over bewildered and windblown slaves in a field.
Nobody in this time seems too fazed by these visitors from the future, who glide through a series of atrocity-laden scenarios as outside observers acting as flies on the wall during the worst period in American history.
The film matter-of-factly “captures” the entirety of the economic chain of enslavement in unrelenting onslaughts of shocking images. Packed into the claustrophobic bowels of a cargo ship teeming with cockroaches, shackled and naked prisoners are doused in saltwater and fed slop like cattle en route to Fort Bastille, Louisiana.
There, the brutal factory-line process continues: delousing, forced enemas, and examinations by a “veterinarian” whose rough manhandling of several naked, crying babies marks one of the first truly cringe-inducing moments in the film. Hundreds of nameless, voiceless extras throw themselves into re-enactments of extreme degradation for Jacopetti and Prosperi’s cameras, which re-create vicious scenes of rape, murder, and violence upon its Haitian actors.
But Farewell Uncle Tom also brilliantly juxtaposes images of unforgivable brutality with moments of beauty, making frequent use of a jarringly romantic theme by composer Riz Ortolani. (Refn later used the song, “Oh My Love,” to underscore murder in his Ryan Gosling-starrer Drive.) The sympathetic camera occasionally meets eyes with unnamed slave characters and that track recurs to great emotional effect, wordlessly emphasizing the humanity beating inside the hearts and minds of the disenfranchised.
One of the true revelations of Farewell Uncle Tom is the scope of its ambition. An early slice-of-life foray through a slave-trading post is staged with the vast grandeur of a grindhouse Gone with the Wind. Hundreds of choreographed extras move through a slave auction where babies are sold by the pound, white nuns haggle over the price of a young boy, and nameless men and women are subjected to extreme degradation on the auction block—all while a jaunty period score plays in the background.
Stomach-turning images flood the screen relentlessly throughout Farewell Uncle Tom, as it revels in showcasing the dehumanizing horrors of slavery. Its sympathies are clear, as just about every white character is depicted as a grotesque, abominable caricature.
Not even the European documentary “filmmakers” get off scot-free, albeit in the most problematic scene of this parade of horrors. Propositioned by a 13-year-old slave girl who’s been forced into housebound prostitution, the film’s Italian narrator can’t help but help himself. He deflowers her from the camera’s eye view.
A present-day postscript follows an African-American priest who reads The Confessions of Nat Turner and fantasizes about exacting a violent Black Power attack on whites circa 1971. The film’s original American distributors balked at those incendiary scenes, forcing the directors to cut it for U.S. audiences.
But edited back in for the Fantastic Fest audience, that last reel makes Farewell Uncle Tom’s confrontational intentions more pointed and clear. In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement, archival footage of police forces brutalizing African Americans intercut with scenes of Civil War re-enactors jovially playing dress up feels not so much dated and incendiary, but provocatively current.