by Ernesto G. Laura
Gian Luigi Polidoro is, among the directors of comedy, one of the ones who has sought to innovate within the tradition. An example of this is PERMETTETE, SIGNORA, CHE AMI VOSTRA FIGLIA? (YOU MIND, MADAM, MY LOVING YOUR DAUGHTER?: 1974), based on a script written by Rafael Azcona, Leo Benvenuti and Pietro De Bernardi, in which Tognazzi, in a highly complex performance, wholly constructed from within, depicts a "ham" actor who, by dint of acting in a play about Mussolini for small-town audiences, identifies himself with the memory of the late dictator and when, as a joke, they put him to the wall he thinks he is really about to be executed like the "Duce". The film is uneven, with moments of banality alternating with flashes of great satire, but the reconstruction on the poor company's stage of certain moments in the life of Mussolini constitute a pungent and convincing piece of cinema.
With ROMANZO POPOLARE (POPULAR NOVEL: 1974), Mario Monicelli, supported by a script written by him with Age and Scarpelli, also seek new paths for Italian-style comedy. As the title indicates, he attempts to transfer a mechanism till then typical of bourgeois comedy (him, her, the other man, suspicions of adultery, separations, quarrels and reconciliations) into a popular setting. So Tognazzi is a Milanese worker of middle age, married to a girl who then betrays him with another young worker. Faced with the facts, old as the world, the man's "liberal" and "open" views melt away like snow in summer and he kicks the adultress out of the house. Tognazzi, Ornella Muti, Michele Placido play their parts, expressing themselves in a language realistically based on the normal speech to be found among the Milanese working classes, with detached amusement, engaged in a playful game not lacking in bitterness.
Dino Risi takes Tognazzi back to the characters of Pietro Chiara in LA STANZA DEL VESCOVO (THE BISHOP'S ROOM), a novel that the writer himself adapted to the screen together with Benvenuti and De Barnardi. The film is set on Lago Maggiore, with a handsome villa overlooking the lake and peaceful boat rides, and is centered around the figure of Orimbelli (Ugo Tognazzi), falsely cocky in his rich man's vulgarity and virile exhibitionism who in the end kills himself instead. In PRIMO AMORE (FIRST LOVE: 1979), Risi deals with the familiar subject of an older man's passion for a young girl, but endowing it with richer meanings, seeing as how Tognazzi is an old retired vaudeville comedian and the girl a maid in the rest home where he lives. The elopment of the lovers to Rome collides brutally with reality: the girl, going from one bed to the other, makes a career for herself on television, he without a cent to his name, a professional failure, goes back to the rest home, resigned to being old. Despite a few vague similarities to Neil Simon's THE SUNSHINE BOYS, the film leads the comedy genre, with its humorous contents, to reflect upon, in an original fashion, the transition from middle age to old age, from active life to retirement.
Ugo Tognazzi, like Sordi and Manfredi, directed a film from time to time, though they weren't his best films. After IL MANTENUTO (THE GIGOLO: 1961), still primitive, he attained better results in IL FISCHIO AL NASO (FEELING FUNNY) in 1967, based on one of the most successful short stories of Dino Buzzati, SETTE PIANI (SEVEN FLOORS), adapted to the screen by the actor-director himself with the collaboration of the writers he used at the time for his theater and television work, the Florentines Giulio Scarnicci and Renzo Tarabusi, as well as Alfredo Pigna. Buzzati tells the harrowing story of a man who is admitted to a clinic for a silly ailment that doesn't worry him in the least. In the clinic, the patients are divided by floor, from the highest to the ground floor, according to the seriousness of their condition. So he is obviously assigned to one of the upper floors, except, under various pretexts, he is moved lower every day and realizes he is condemned to death. Tognazzi replaces the atmosphere of metaphysical anguish of the original story with motivations of a lighter and more easily understandable sort, and that is a very concrete affair of interests between relatives and the managers of the clinic, and the accent shifts, without explanation, from a pure and simple thriller to the grotesque. Even so, the film works, thanks to a finely-wrought performance and a driving pace. Tognazzi took a story by Tonino Guerra, Franco Indovina and Luigi Malerba for his third film, SISSIGNORE (YES SIR: 1968), the ludicrous portrait of a chauffeur who spends his life covering up the misdeeds, the swindles and love-affairs of his boss, in the end being sentenced to prison for life. While his fourth film, CATTIVI PENSIERI (EVIL THOUGHTS: 1976), seems less important, I VIAGGIATORI DELLA SERA (THE NIGHT TRAVELERS), a science-fiction fable, based on a novel by Umberto Simonetta, about a future society in which old people kill themselves, is of a certain distinction, despite some rather slow moments.