Monday, August 29, 2011

5. The Episode Films part two


by Ernesto G. Laura - Compiled by A.N.I.C.A. (National Association of Motion Pictures and Affiliated Industries) Rome, Italy - Edited by CIES Soc. Coop. r.1 (Institute for the Promotion of Italian Motion Pictures Abroad) Rome, Italy under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment

In the wake of the two "Zibaldoni" of Alessandro Blasetti, episode films flooded the Italian market in the '50s. Vittorio De Sica, after the austere and desperate UMBERTO D., tried to apply his human curiosity as a tireless explorer of social "spaces" to a film of broad box-office appeal. So turning to a story by Cesare Zavattini, he came up with STAZIONE TERMINI, or as it was called in the United States, INDISCRETIONS OF AN AMERICAN WIFE (1953), which, centered around a couple of Americans lost in the confusion of the main station of Rome (Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift), should have resulted in a broad, teeming, but unified canvas of a microcosm like a railroad station in a big city. Despite the blessing of a script signed by people like Zavattini, Luigi Chiarini, Giorgio Prosperi with dialogue by Truman Capote, the film ended as a sum total of little sketches, of fleeting, often negligible portraits, without being convincing.

Much more successful in its results was the following L'ORO DI NAPOLI (THE GOLD OF NAPLES: 1956), based on several stories from a charming book by Giuseppe Marotto, a Neapolitan writer who had settled in Milan and had been one of the main figures responsible for the success of the humorous journals, and who succeeded in creating an image, now festive, now suddenly sad, but always colorful and lively, of his beloved Naples. Suffice it to remember the first episode, with a Totò more jerky and puppet-like than ever, immortalizing on the screen the figure of the "pazzariello" (who wander the streets eccentrically dressed playing cymbals and drums to earn a few pennies from the crowd). Equally memorable I giocatori (The Gamblers), the story in which Vittorio De Sica, an inveterate gambler and bettor who has seen better days, is reduced to gambling with a little boy, who naturally ends up winning. Pizze a credito (Pizzas On Credit), lastly, established the role that for a long time remained identified with Sophia Loren, namely the "pizzaiola", a beautiful, sexy plebeian, a character that was to reappear in other films.

Friday, August 26, 2011

5. The Episode Films part one

by Ernesto G. Laura - Compiled by A.N.I.C.A. (National Association of Motion Pictures and Affiliated Industries) Rome, Italy - Edited by CIES Soc. Coop. r.1 (Institute for the Promotion of Italian Motion Pictures Abroad) Rome, Italy under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment

The episode film is not very popular today on the international scene. In Italy, instead, it has occupied a rather important place over the last thirty years, especially in the field of comedy.

Aside from the advantages of a commercial nature that can be brought forward, it is also true that the short story pertains to an uninterrupted and glorious tradition in Italian literature, from the DECAMERON of Giovanni Boccaccio to the NOVELLE PER UN ANNO (SHORT STORIES FOR A YEAR) by Luigi Pirandello.

It has been seen that the first examples of an episode film that sought to establish an Italian model was in recent times no less a classic than PAISA by Rossellini. The same Rossellini would divide the poetic FRANCESCO GIULLARE DI DIO (FRANCIS, JESTER OF GOD: 1950) into seperate chapters.

Alessandro Blasetti, with his passionate and polemical nature, was fighting, at the decline of the neo-realistic season for a return to "literary" films, based that is on the great works of Italian and foreign fiction. Thus came into being, one after another, ALTRI TEMPI (OLDEN TIMES: 1952) and TEMPI NOSTRI (OUR TIMES: 1954), which was sub-titled Zibaldone No. 1 and No. 2 ("zibaldone" in Italian means "anthology," but in using, rather tongue-in-cheek, this high-sounding term, the director was referring back to a famous work by Giacomo Leopardi, the greatest 19th century Italian poet).

Following the tenuous story-line of an itinerant bookseller who craves the literature of the past (Aldo Fabrizi) and offers passers by second-hand books from his stand, the various episodes unfold, situated between the 18th and early 19th century in a loving tribute that moves from the dramatic to the comic, depending on the texts taken from writers like Edmondo De Amicis, Camillo Boito, Renato Fucini, Guido Nobili and Edoardo Scarfoglio. A story by the latter writer, Il processo di Frine (Frine's Trial), provides the basis of the most amusing episode, where Gina Lollobrigida is a beautiful peasant girl on trial for poisoning, whom the lawyer for the defense, a historonic Vittorio De Sica, succeeds in getting acquitted, basing his defense exclusively on her sex appeal. TEMPI NOSTRI (OUR TIMES) followed the same plan, but utilizing only writers of this century: Mario Moretti, Alberto Moravia, Vasco Patrolini, Achille Campanile, Ercole Patti, Silvio D'Arzo, Anton Germano Rossi, Giuseppe Marotta. Particularly exhilirating the short episodes based on humorous stories, like Il bacio (The Kiss), taken from Campanile, where two lovebirds make arrangements to meet at the station, the only place where it is "lawful" to kiss, pretending to leave; Il pupo (The Kid), from Moravia, which Marcello Mastroianni and Lea Padovani, as two parents who "forget" their baby on the threshold of a church; La macchina fotografica (The Camera), written by Age and Scarpelli with Sandro Continenza, with a riotous Totò involved in photographing Sophia Loren. Immediately after, Blasetti would turn to a Moravia short story for PECCATO CHE SIA UNA CANAGLIA (A PITY SHE'S A SCOUNDREL: 1955) about an honest young Roman boy, Mastroianni, madly in love with a gorgeous girl with the slight drawback of being a professional thief (Sophia Loren), the daughter of a Vittorio De Sica, who is a positive virtuoso of the "profession." The director would return to episode films in 1965 with IO, IO, IO... E GLI ALTRI (ME, ME, ME... AND THE OTHERS), which is a sort of "lecture with examples" on human selfishness.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

4. The Totò Phenomenon part five


by Ernesto G. Laura - Compiled by A.N.I.C.A. (National Association of Motion Pictures and Affiliated Industries) Rome, Italy - Edited by CIES Soc. Coop. r.1 (Institute for the Promotion of Italian Motion Pictures Abroad) Rome, Italy under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment

To fully appreciate the actor's gifts, one must see him in films that were less ambitious in scope. In DESTINAZIONE PIOVAROLO (DESTINATION PIOVAROLO: 1955) by Domenico Paolella he is a station-master sent during Fascism to take charge of a completely insignificant little railroad station in a remote country town and whose mishaps with the authorities prevent him, even after the fall of the regime, from being promoted to a more important place. In UNA DI QUELLE (ONE OF THOSE: 1953), directed by Aldo Fabrizi, he is a provincial "hick" who comes to Rome with a friend on the lookout for easy conquests and runs into a poor widow who has decided to prostitute herself in order to feed her family. AVANTI C'E POSTO (COME ON, THERE'S ROOM), with its sentimentalities, returns, but Totò coupled, as was frequently to be the case, with Peppino De Filippo, draws a penetrating portrait of the middle-aged man in the mood for courtship. In I TRE LADRI (THE THREE THIEVES: 1954) by Lionello De Felice, from the celebrated early 20th century novel by Umberto Notari which had already inspired a film in Czarist Russia, he is a small-time thief who manages to expose the swindles of three businessmen who are bigger thieves than he. In LA BANDA DEGLI ONESTI (THE GANG OF HONEST MEN: 1956) by Camillo Mastrocinque, he is a poor devil who takes up counterfeiting to stave off starvation, creates counterfeit bills of imcomparable perfection but then, seized by the pangs of conscience, doesn't have the courage to put them into circulation. LA LEGGE E LEGGE (THE LAW IS LAW), directed in 1958 by the French director, Christian-Jaque, is a variation on the theme of GUARDIE E LADRI (COPS AND ROBBERS), set in the Alps on the Italo-French border, a series of ludicrous run-ins between a customs officer (the French comedian, Fernandel) and a smuggler (who is obviously Totò). IL COMANDANTE (THE COMMANDER), directed in 1963 by Paolo Heusch on a script by Rodolfo Sonego, describes the disillusionments of a retired officer who tries in vain to regain an influential position by throwing himself into the business world which he is not cut out for. Along with an extremely controlled Totò there is the elegant vivacity of one of the finest light comedy actresses in the Italian theater, Andreina Pagnani.

Towards the end of his life, Totò was engaged by a very particular film author like Pier Paolo Pasolini. The director of utterly tragic films like SALO E LE CENTO GIORNATE DI SODOMA (SALO AND THE HUNDRED DAYS OF SODOM), he never made any authentic comedies. Even so, a certain comic flavor is to be found, in the use of certain mechanisms if nothing else, in UCCELLACCI E UCCELLINI (BAD BIRDS AND LITTLE BIRDS: 1966), a modern fairy-tale entrusted to the genius of a Totò who is himself, down to the "traditional" clothes he wears, and at the same time a symbol of a certain human condition. For his performance, Totò received an Honorable Mention at the 1966 Cannes Festival. Pasolini would use him again in LA TERRA VISTA DALLA LUNA (THE EARTH SEEN FROM THE MOON), one of the episodes in the film, LE STREGHE (THE WITCHES: 1967), and with marvlous results, in CHE COSA SONO LE NUVOLE? (WHAT ARE CLOUDS?), an episode from CAPRICCIO ALL'ITALIANA (ITALIAN CAPRICE: 1968), where Totò, with his face painted green, is Iago in a scatterbrained performance of OTHELLO in a marionette theater.

With Totò and his exceptionaly creativity as a mime, Italian-style comedy possessed the ideal interpreter of that Italian, poor of pocket but rich in spirit, who is one of its recurring figures. Too bad it exploited him to little.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

4. The Totò Phenomenon part four

by Ernesto G. Laura - Compiled by A.N.I.C.A. (National Association of Motion Pictures and Affiliated Industries) Rome, Italy - Edited by CIES Soc. Coop. r.1 (Institute for the Promotion of Italian Motion Pictures Abroad) Rome, Italy under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment

A failure, unfortunately, was Totò's encounter with one of the masters of Italian cinema in one of his rare sorties into the field of comedy, a genre that was not congenial to him: DOV'E LA LIBERTA? (WHERE'S FREEDOM?). Written by Rossellini with Antonio Pietrangeli, this paradoxical story tells of a man who, set free after years in jail, escapes in the opposite sense, demanding, that is, to be put back in prison because the modern-day world has been an utter disappointment. The film lacked pace and the contribution of the actor, however excellent, fails to compensate for the inconsistencies and discrepancies of the plot.

UN TURCO NAPOLETANO (A NEAPOLITAN TURK: 1953), MISERIA E NOBILITA (POVERTY AND NOBILITY: 1954) and IL MEDICO DEI PAZZI (THE DOCTOR OF THE MAD: 1954) represented three mediocre attempts by Mario Mattoli to recreate on the screen the charm of Naples between the 19th and 20th century on the basis of three famous plays by Scarpetta which were part of the classical repertoire of the Neapolitan theater. But Totò seemed somewhat cramped by the restrictions of the roles not created for him.

Monday, August 22, 2011

4. The Totò Phenomenon part three


by Ernesto G. Laura - Compiled by A.N.I.C.A. (National Association of Motion Pictures and Affiliated Industries) Rome, Italy - Edited by CIES Soc. Coop. r.1 (Institute for the Promotion of Italian Motion Pictures Abroad) Rome, Italy under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment

Steno brought together Totò's instinctive talents and the great threater of Pirandello, bringing him to the screen in the role of the mild-mannered Professor Paolino in L'UOMO, LA BESTIA E LA VIRTU (MAN, BEAST AND VIRTUE: 1953), the script was written in collaboration with Vitaliano Brancati. Inspired in turn by one of Pirandello's short stories, the play, written in 1919, belongs to the light, satirical output of the great Sicilian writer, who set a serious, sedate professor (Totò, of course) against a coarse, impetuous sea captain (Orson Welles) with a sensual and enticing wife (Viviane Romance). A story of adultery, to be sure, but one which Pirandello succeeds in endowing with deeper references and meanings, unfortunately lost in the film which, even so, offers a magnificent contest of acting between three "holy monsters" from three different cinematographic "schools". But the best Pirandello brought to the screen by Totò is the one-act LA PATENTE (THE LICENSE), included in the episode film, QUESTA E LA VITA (THIS IS LIFE: 1954) by Mario Soldati. In order to appreciate the bitter humor of the play, one must understand what the "jella" ("evil eye") means to a superstitious Southern Italian. It's bad luck, yes, but bad luck raised to the level of a supernatural, metaphysical curse, one that is transmitted to others by abominable carriers, who are known, in fact, as "jettatori" ("Jonahs"). Rosario Chiarchiari has the reputation in town of being a "jettatore," thanks to which he is no longer able to find work and is shunned by everybody. So he decides to sue one of his slanderers for calumny. But to the judge's great surprise, Rosario brings to the lawyer of the opposing party all the proofs of incidents and circumstances which confirm his fame as a "jettatore" and which will acquit the slanderer. The sentence of acquittal will represent for Rosario a sort of "license" which makes him an official "jettatore". And since he can no longer find work, with that "license" he goes and stands outside of stores and offices and makes them pay him to go away, to remove the "evil eye". In Totò's hands, the portrait of this bizarre figure takes on nuances of sublime levity and mirth, also physically, but without sacrificing the profound sadness that underlies the "mask" of folly.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

4. The Totò Phenomenon part two

by Ernesto G. Laura - Compiled by A.N.I.C.A. (National Association of Motion Pictures and Affiliated Industries) Rome, Italy - Edited by CIES Soc. Coop. r.1 (Institute for the Promotion of Italian Motion Pictures Abroad) Rome, Italy under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment

Unfortunately, it was easier and more convenient to exploit Totò in low-budget slap-dash films, based entirely on his skills as an improviser and the sex-appeal of the starlet called in for the occasion. The actor himself contributed to this self-devaluation, by accepting all his life everything that was offered him, without stopping to choose, passing from the cheap "flicker" to the masterpiece. But this extraordinary "show animal" was too gifted to be ignored by directors endowed with personality and ideas. So, however numerous the farces, there were also comedies, with real character, well-studied situations, stories that were not mere pretexts.

Two filmmakers, Steno (Stefano Vanzina, 1915) and Mario Monicelli (1915), who had come from the humorous weeklies and while waiting to direct a film had worked together as scriptwriters, set their eyes on Totò with the idea of turning him into the new hero of civil and social satire.

Scriptwriters are the key to understanding the continuity of development of the Italian-style film comedy. Steno and Monicelli had written the script for the triptych directed by Borghesio with Macario about the common little man in the war and after. Steno by himself had already worked for Totò on the script for FIFA E ARENA (FUNK AND SAND) and TOTO AL GIRO D'ITALIA (TOTO AT THE TOUR OF ITALY).

TOTO CERCA CASA (TOTO HOUSE-HUNTING) of 1949 is their "Opus One" as directors and though the difficulty of finding a house offered humorous possibilities, it also entailed a certain openness to the social problems of Rome, like countless other Italian cities. TOTO E I RE DI ROMA (TOTO AND THE KING OF ROME: 1951) is already more complex. To focalize the daily misadventures of a small-time civil servant, Dino Risi and Ennio De Concini, the authors of the book (the script was written by the directors, Steno and Monicelli, themselves), took their inspiration from two short stories by Anton Chekhov, The Death Of The Civil Servant and Promotion Exams. The two directors offered the actor wonderful opportunities to show off his paradoxical humor, for example in the sequence where Totò arranges for and announces his own funeral. GUARDIE E LADRI (COPS AND ROBBERS: 1951), Steno and Monicelli's third film with the Neapolitan comedian, cuts much closer to the quick of the social fabric. The main character is a thief, not an Arsene Lupin of course, but a small-time chicken thief who has a family to support and finds no way to make ends meet except by stealing. He is pursued by a big, gruff cop whom the thief always manages to get away from. The script of the story by Piero Tellini was written by two perceptive and subtle writers, specialists in the criticism of social conventions, scathing critics of hypocrisy and outward conformity: Vitaliano Brancati and Ennio Flaiano. The skirmishes between the cop - Aldo Fabrizi - and robber - Totò - are rooted in an old tradition of the great comic cinema: think of the candid Charlie Chaplin being chased by the husky and belligerent Keystone Cops. Steno and Monicelli set this tradition into suburban working-class Rome and humanized both the cop and the robber, confined by circumstances to their seperate roles but actually holding a soft spot for each other that verges on friendship, so that in the end the robber, before letting himself be handcuffed, hands his family over to the cop for safe keeping. GUARDIE E LADRI (COPS AND ROBBERS) won the prize for the best script at the 1952 Cannes Festival. TOTO E CAROLINA (TOTO AND CAROLINA: 1953), directed by Mario Monicelli alone, also moves in the line of social paradox. This time the involuntary friendship grows up between a cop - Totò - and a prostitute in an unconventional story whose humor is tinged with simmering bitterness. The story was by the writer Ennio Flaiano, the script by Flaiano, Monicelli and Rodolfo Sonego. A few years later, in 1960, Monicelli would give Totò another important opportunity with RISATE DI GIOIA (LAUGHS OF JOY), written by Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Age, Furio Scarpelli and Monicelli on the basis of a short story by Alberto Moravia. Concentrated into the span of a few hours on New Year's Eve, it describes the disillusionments of a film-extra from Cinecitta, Anna Magnani, and an old sutor of her's, Totò, during a dance, where they are snubbed by high society. Two American actors, Ben Gazzara and Fred Clark, also took part in the film.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

4. The Totò Phenomenon part one


by Ernesto G. Laura - Compiled by A.N.I.C.A. (National Association of Motion Pictures and Affiliated Industries) Rome, Italy - Edited by CIES Soc. Coop. r.1 (Institute for the Promotion of Italian Motion Pictures Abroad) Rome, Italy under the auspices of the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment

The success of the Italian-style film comedy would come to depend upon the presence of well-known and popular actors. In the beginning this was not the case: as has been seen, neither DUE SOLDI DI SPERANZA (TWO CENTS OF HOPE) nor POVERI MA BELLI (POOR, BUT GOOD-LOOKING) subscribed to the star system. After the short-lived "case" of Macario, who soon returned to the ranks of the comic film and then moved down to supporting roles, the first name around which could be built, in the early '50s, a long series of film comedies was that of Totò.

Totò (Antonio De Curtis, 1898-1967) was not a new name, either on stage or in movies. He had started in the shoddy vaudeville theaters of Naples and slowly graduated from the music hall to the big stage revues, where he had already become popular in the '30s, with Anna Magnani as his partner. His body was extraordinarily double-jointed and he possessed a highly mobile face with round eyes and a crooked chin. He would appear on stage in a morning coat and a bowler hat, with the trousers slightly too short, and in contrast to this all-told "dignified" appearance he would go through movements that grew more and more mechanical and jerky and turned him into a sort of marionette. In the days when comics made people laugh with the quality of their jokes and wise cracks, Totò was first of all a mime and performed with his body in constant, free improvisation.

These mimetic characteristics made him particularly suited to the movies, for which he made a number of fly-by-night films beginning in 1937. However, the number one star among comedians was Macario and until that star began to decline, Totò remained in the shadows of a moderate success, a restricted popularity. His fame exploded in 1948 with FIFA E ARENA (FUNK AND SAND), a farce directed by Mario Mattoli on the old theme of bull fights and toreadors. It is clear that farce, slapstick comedy lies outside our present subject, but TOTO AL GIRO D'ITALIA (TOTO AT THE TOUR OF ITALY), also from 1948, moves beyond the farce and is a real comedy and very well constructed. Along with soccer, bicycle riding was the most popular spot in Italy at that time. During the "Giro d'Italia," the big race that circled all of Italy in succeeding laps, newspapers came out in special evening editions to report the order of arrival of each lap. The rivalry between the two champions, Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi, sent crowds of fans into delirium. Mattoli got the idea of taking several documentary sequences of the real Giro d'Italia, with the participation of the most famous racers, and grafting onto it an imaginary story, cast in a surreal style of humor, a humor of the absurd. Totò was, in fact, a "gregario," that is one of those cyclists who ride along in the team to give the champions a hand, but who never win a race and almost never even a lap. Latter-day Faust, he makes a pact with the devil and starts winning one race after the other. A charming comedy, wonderfully quick in pace, with a pleasantly bourgeois devil (Veneto actor Carlo Micheluzzi), it revealed just how talented Totò could be if confronted with roles that were diversified and richly articulated.