Friday, October 28, 2011

7. Alberto Sordi Personification of the Average Italian part seven


by Ernesto G. Laura

The ideal sequel to TUTTI A CASA (EVERYBODY HOME), but more facile and conventional in its development, is the succeeding I DUE NEMICI (THE TWO ENEMIES, aka THE BEST OF ENEMIES), written again by Age and Scarpelli in collaboration with Suso Cecchi d'Amico and the English scenarist Jack Pulman, on a story by Luciano Vincenzoni of LA GRANDE GUERRA (THE GREAT WAR); the director was the Englishman Guy Hamilton, better-known later as the director of James Bond films. It is not easy to laugh about a lost war, and it is unquestionally a bitter laugh, but not a superficial one. In 1941 in Ethiopia, the film confronts two "enemies", the British major, Richardson, impeccably performed by David Niven, and the Italian captain, Blasi, who take each other prisoners, then establish a temporary alliance for want of provisions and ammunition in the middle of the savannah, and in the end go back to being "enemies" when the defeated Italians are definitely taken prisoner with, however, the honors of war. As in the previous film, Sordi plays an officer, who is forced to come round to an ambiguous reality in which the questions of for whom and against whom blur and overlap. He goes on doing his duty even though the negative outcome is inevitable.

The transition from war experiences to post-war experiences was not calm and easy for everyone. Rodolfo Sonego writes one of his best scripts for Sordi, tailoring to measure a character who moves precisely in this compilicated and contradictory span of time: the character of Silvio Magnozzi in UNA VITA DIFFICILE (A HARD LIFE), directed in 1961 by Dino Risi. Could this Magnozzi be the Innocenzi of TUTTI A CASA (EVERYBODY HOME)? Like him, on September 8th, he is a dispersed reserve officer without orders, until he ends up becoming a partisan in the North. After the war, he carries on his commitment as a journalist on a leftist paper until the left is excluded from the government in 1948. In the different political and civil atmosphere that follows, Magnozzi loses his job, tries to get a novel published, tries to write movie scripts, in other words, lives from pillar to post, even momentarily ending up in jail. Throwing to the dogs the ideals that had sustained him during the Resistance and after the war, he decides to make money as a "hanger-on" to an important businessman, until, however, his conscience gains the upper hand and he shoves his boss into the swimming-pool of his villa. Sordi shows extraordinary restraint in the role, playing down the comic situations without ever letting them become farcical, lending them a rather more grotesque flavor.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

7. Alberto Sordi Personification of the Average Italian part six

by Ernesto G. Laura

Age and Scarpelli - who contributed to the success of LA GRANDE GUERRA (THE GREAT WAR) also as the authors of the dialogue, in which dialects of various regions were wittily interwoven - wrote the story (and the script, along with Marcello Fondato and the director) of another splendid film in which comedy was blended with the deep-felt representation of a war: TUTTI A CASA (EVERYBODY HOME: 1960) by Luigi Comencini. This time it is World War II and the crucial period following the armistace of September 8, 1943. As a result of the flight of the king and the prime minister to Bari and the exaggerated secrecy of the armistace negotiations underway, officers and soldiers suddenly found themselves without orders, with the Germans turning from allies to enemies and starting to fire on Italian troops. Comencini recounts the pangs of conscience of Second Lieutenant Innocenzi (Sordi) who, like many others, had never had the possibility of acquiring a political culture, had been a Fascist because that was all you could be and suddenly finds himself confronted by a series of events that what he learned at school, his tradiational values, leave him completely unprepared for.
On the one hand, there is the King of Italy who has gone nobody knows exactly where, but to whom the officer has taken an oath of allegiance. On the other, there is Mussolini, up to recently the King's prime minister, who has set himself up as the head of a republic controlled by the Nazis. Innocenzi is persuaded by his father to contact the new Fascists, but they are people he instinctively dislikes. Devoid of orders, he decides to go North (he's in Campania) and on the way realizes that in order to avoid the Germans he has to throw away his uniform and put on civilian clothes. Disbanded, undecided, he proceeds aimlessly along roads full of refugees, on trains pursued by the machine-gun fire of passing planes, in the midst of ruins. He reaches Naples as the city, at the end of September, 1943, is rising up against Fascists and Germans, and the common people willingly risk their lives in the fight for freedom. Without thinking twice, Innocenzi realizes what his choice will be: he seizes the sub-machine gun dropped by a dead soldier and fires on the Nazis.
The process of enlightenment is complete: fighting as a partisan, he redeems his honor as an officer, knows he is fighting for his country. Comencini deals with so complex a subject by means of a series of closely-connected episodes, set in various regions and environments and with a throng of also minor characters, but the main thread is never lost, and it's the thread of this confused Alberto Innocenzi in search of himself and of values that seemd destroyed, and of the crisis which seems to crush him and instead fortifies him and leads to self-commitment. Along with Sordi are two foreign actors who give plausible portrayals of Italian characters: French actor Serge Reggiani as a Neopolitan soldier and American actor Martin Balsam as an Emilian peasant.

Monday, October 24, 2011

7. Alberto Sordi Personification of the Average Italian part five


by Ernesto G. Laura

This remarkable actor's most important contribution to the development of Italian-style film comedy is to be found, not in films where he places his comic talents at the service of farcical characterizations, nor in those where he contributes, after his inimitable fashion, to an effective satire of social conventions. Sordi is truly irreplacable in those films in which he lends substance to the figure of the average Italian immersed in the great historical ordeals of the nation. What Steno and Monicelli had started to do with Macario and then with Toto finds in Alberto Sordi the ideal interpreter.

This ultimate fate of the Sordi "personage" could already be glimpsed in a mediocre film from 1954, TRIPOLI, BEL SUOL D'AMORE (TRIPOLI, FAIR LAND OF LOVE) by Ferruccio Cario, where Alberto Sordi was a farm boy recruit drafted into the Bersaglieri and immediately sent to Libya, in a desert outpost beseiged by Arabs during the Italo-Turkish war of 1911 which ended, in fact, with the Italian conquest of Libya. Unfortunately, the idea of using several excellent comedians (included, as well, Riccardo Billi and Mario Riva) to recount a war episode in a satirical key was spoiled by a trite development which reflected the conventional tenets of the comic-sentimental adventure story.

It was not until 1959, with Mario Monicelli's LA GRANDE GUERRA (THE GREAT WAR), that the actor got his chance. The film met with extraordinary success right from its first appearance at the Venice Festival: it won (ex-aequo) the "Gold Lion" plus an Honorable Mention from the jury for Alberto Sordi's performance. The new idea of Luciano Vincenzoni's story (put into script form by him and the director, Age and Scarpelli) was to view the First World not in its heroic aspects but through the eyes of two cowards. Oreste Jacovacci (Sordi) and Giovanni Busacca (Vittorio Gassman), two poor devils and small-time chiselers, one groveling and cagey, the other conceited and cocky, find themselves in the front line trenches after having tried everything to be exempted. They try to take as few risks as possible and to survive, but, captured by the Austrians, they are seized by a spurt of dignity and honor and, refusing to reveal the disposition of the Italian troops, let themselves be executed, dying despite everything as heroes.

Monicelli, also setting great store on certain Italian novels and stories of the '20s and '30s, forcefully portrayed the grueling life at the front, the cold, the fleas, the hunger and the daily risk of dying. But this image, typical of any war film, takes on an unusual flavor of truthfulness in the programmatic rejection of any kind of war rhetoric. Heroism is not obligatory, the director seems to say, and the ordinary man gets there because the situation leads him to it, doing his duty even when he is convinced he doesn't know what it is or refuses to do it. What emerges is a striking "polyphonic" work where epic and individual sequences alternate, well-defined and diversified characters stand out and the humorous tone endows those characters with a remarkable human vitality. Gassman, celebrated Italian stage actor, for the first time tackles a comic role, and Sordi, by then a famous comedian, effortlessly assumes even the most dramatic tones. The film helped to open the discussion on Italy's participation in the First World War and on how it was experienced by the people.

Friday, October 21, 2011

7. Alberto Sordi Personification of the Average Italian part four


by Ernesto G. Laura

Though the actor wonderfully succeeds in impersonating popular types, the precise definition of his real "type" is to be found in his middle-class portrayals. Already in 1955 in Comencini's BELLA DI ROMA (ROME BEAUTY), he was a tricky husband, a profligate to all appearances irreprehensible who parades his religious piety, an ambiguous figure endowed by Sordi with a highly subtle irony that corrodes it from within. Playing the charming swindler to the hilt, Sordi fits perfectly into one of the few examples of black humor in Italian-style comedy, Steno's PICCOLA POSTA (WANT-ADS: 1955), in the role of a phony count who runs a rest-home to which he entices little old ladies full of money to rob them or even, as in the case of Donna Virgina, to kill them off. In IL MORALISTA (THE MORALIST: 1959), directed by Giorgio Bianchi, he portrays, with ruthless sarcasm, a sort of professional moralist, the secretary of an international organization for public morals who turns out to be exactly the opposite: the organizer of a white-slave racket. Another perfect example of black humor is IL VEDOVO (THE WIDOWER), directed in 1959 by Dino Risi and written by Dino Verde, Sandro Continenza and Fabio Carpi, about a businessman on the verge of bunkruptcy who plans the perfect crime to get rid of his wife who has all the money. Between the malicious wife of Franca Valeri and the vile, shifty and hypocritical husband of Sordi, the film proceeds at a lively pace, keeping an eye on Anglo-Saxon models and aiming at an intelligent humor.

Alberto Sordi frequently appeared in comedies based on married couples, suffice it to remember IL SEDUTTORE (THE SEDUCER) which in 1954 Franco Rossi (Florentine, born in 1919) successfully derived from the play by Diego Fabbri and which recounts the love affairs of an office clerk, who is caught and forgiven by his wife. The Fabbri play, behind the facade of a French-style vaudeville, aspired to simbolic meanings on the human condition which were lost in the film where nothing but the "divertissement" remains, but in any case the film was well-concocted and acted. Of greater depth was the leading character in LO SCAPOLO (THE BACHELOR), directed in 1956 by Antonio Pietrangeli (1919-1968) with the accuracy of psychological and environmental description that was characteristic of his work. Sordi is a man around thirty, Paolo, who all of a sudden decides to get married and looks around to find the ideal woman. The humor of the film lies in the process of choosing a future wife as if he were out to buy a house or company shares. A quite successful attempt at assailing the conventions and hypocrisies of certain bourgeoise marriages is to be found in IL MARITO (THE HUSBAND), directed in 1958 by Nanni Loy and Gianni Puccini (1914-1968) and written by the directors with Sonego, Sordi, Maccari and Scola. It is the story of a building contractor oppressed by his wife and mother-in-law as well as his sister-in-law, who, on the verge of bankruptcy, turns to a rich widow to borrow money, creating pandemonioum in the family.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

7. Alberto Sordi Personification of the Average Italian part three


by Ernesto G. Laura

It is, however, a short episode in the film UN GIORNO IN PRETURA (A DAY IN COURT: 1954), by Steno, which brought Sordi the wild-spread popularity he still enjoys. When he appears in an undershirt at the back of the courtroom where he is on trial for having swum naked in the river and says, as if presenting his calling card: "Indecent conduct, Mr. Judge, indecent conduct," a character is born and fills the screen: Nando Moriconi, the "Americano". He is a boy from the working-class suburbs, illiterate and maybe a little stupid, who has assimilated the "American way of life" from films and newspapers, speaks in a funny way that is meant to be Anglo-Saxon but immediately switches to Roman dialect and dreams of skyscrapers, gunmen, the Far West, gangsters, cops, everything that reaches him from American films. The story concerning him - he went swimming in the river and some urchins steal his clothes, so he is forced to go home naked - is little more than an anecdote, a filmed joke, but Nando Moriconi is a figure out of the ordinary who excites both laughter and tenderness in his gentle meglomaniac folly. The figure would return immediately after in UN AMERICANO A ROMA (AN AMERICAN IN ROME: 1954), again by Steno, in a film all for him and with a script in which Ettore Scola also had a hand. It's a sort of biography of Nando Moriconi, an unsuccessful vaudeville dancer with the state name (Americanized, of course) of Santee Baylor, from the time of the Nazi occupation to the post-war period, in a crescendo of disasters brought on by his mania for dressing up, among other things, as an American cop. Twenty years later, Nando Moriconi would be "fished out" again for an episode in the film DI CHE SEGNO SEI? (WHAT'S YOUR SIGN: 1975) by Sergio Corbucci, in which the one-time youngster, now a grown-up man but still a "big baby" in spirit, crowns his American dream with a uniform and a motorcycle like the ones used by American cops, hired as a private bodyguard to protect a rich tycoon frightened of terrorists.

Sordi, born in the famous Trastevere quarter of Rome, is ideally suited to playing the "Roman of Rome" in the spirit of popular humor, drawing upon his personal experiences to invent typical Roman "characters". In GUARDIA, GUARDIA SCELTA, BRIGADIERE E MARESCIALLO (PRIVATE, PRIVATE FIRST-CLASS, CORPORAL AND SERGEANT), directed in 1956 by Mauro Bolognini (and written by Maccari, Scola and Manzari on a story by Paolo Frasca) he incarnates, very realistically with only a few, essential comic touches, the part of a policeman who plays in the Police Department Band and studies French with the secret ambition of becoming an interpreter. In LADRO LUI, LADRA LEI (HE THIEF, SHE THIEF: 1954) by Luigi Zampa (written by Franciosa and Festa Campanile, Zampa and Sordi) he is Cencio, a small0time professional thief by age-old family tradition, who from childhood and with unshakable optimism alternates periods in jail and periods of freedom. In FORTUNELLA, directed in 1958 by Eduardo De Filippo, but on an idea by Fellini, he is a modest secondhand dealer who is actualloy a "fence" and who does not hesitate to send his mistress to jail in his place (those negative heroes begin to appear which Sordi took up from time to time with no fear of diminishing his popularity). He plays a similar role in NELLA CITTA L'INFERNO (HELL IN THE CITY: 1959) by Renato Castellani, where he is Adone, the boy-friend of a housemaid who ends up in jail for a robbery organized by him. COSTA AZZURRA (RIVIERA: 1959) by Vittorio Sala finds him in the role of a fruit-seller momentarily carried away by the mirage of becoming a movie star. IL VIGILE (THE POLICEMAN: 1960) by Luigi Zampa presents him as a jobless man of no great intelligence, Otello, who as the result of a recommendation becomes a policeman and learns at his own expense, having attacked the mayor of the city, that to get along in the world you have to wait upon the powerful. So he lets the mayor drive his fast car into a street where it is prohibited to go and now the mayor, how had insisted upon being let by, ends up in a ditch.

In LO SCOPONE SCIENTIFICO (THE CARD GAME), written by Rodolfo Sonego and directed by Luigi Comencini, he is "borgataro" (a man from the working-class suburbs) who every year, during the holiday and tourist season, is called by an eccentric old American millionairess who lends him a million to play cards ("scopone scientifico," a sort of cassino) against her, certain that in the end she will win it all back. This bitter and paradoxical story, ending on an unexpected note of black humor, derives much of its comic flavor from the contrast between two actors as different in style and tradition as Alberto Sordi and Bette Davis.

Monday, October 17, 2011

7. Alberto Sordi Personification of the Average Italian part two


by Ernesto G. Laura

MAMMA MIA, CHE IMPRESSIONE! (DEAR ME, WHAT A FRIGHT!: 1951) by Roberto Savarese (with the supervision of Vittorio De Sica) was produced by a company especially set up by De Sica and Sordi. The story was by Sordi himself, who also wrote the script with De Sica and Zavattini, showing right from the start a firm determination not to be a mere performer but to take an active part in the creation of the film. He played the role of a doltish, simple-minded boy scout, with a certain flair for parody, but the film on the whole was second-rate and had no success at the boxoffice.

He owed his success, as said above, to Fellini's I VITELLONI (THE YOUNG STEERS), presented and awarded a prize at Venice in 1953. Fellini had, however, already established his particular world with LO SCEICCO BIANCO (THE WHITE SHEIK) in 1952, written by Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano and based on a story that Michelangelo Antonioni also had a hand in. It told of a couple of petty bourgeois newly-weds, very respectable, very careful of appearances, who come to Rome from the South on their honeymoon, which includes a visit to the Pope. Vanda, the newly-wed wife, is a rabid reader of picture-story magazines (which grew up in Italy and were enormously popular in the '50s, mostly with women). Vanda takes advantage of the trip to Rome to make the acquaintance of a picture-story star, the daring young man who plays the lead in the story of the "White Sheik". The encounter was to be very disappointing, as Fernando Rivoli, the "White Sheik", is an uncouth, sly and cynical character, deceitful and promiscuous, exactly the opposite of the "unblemished hero" she had dreamt of. What emerges in the film is that idea of the Italian provinces as the begetter of myths, of dreams (and frustrations) that was to return as a constant refrain in the director's films. But the Sordi "personage" also emerges fully drawn, part cad, part show-off and part "big baby".

In I VITELLONI (THE YOUNG STEERS: 1953), where the Rimini of Fellini's boyhood serves as background, the director follows a group of friends about to turn thirty, when the carefree years of youth are coming to an end. But they refuse to grow up, are against working or getting married and would like nothing better than to idle away their time as eternal students. Life would bring them, one by one, face to face with their responsibilities. Alberto, in particular, coming home from a Mardi Gras party where he has had a wild time dressed as a woman, finds his mother in tears because his sister has run off with a man, forever. He, who has always led an idle life at his sister's expense, suddenly has to become a man.

Friday, October 14, 2011

7. Alberto Sordi Personification of the Average Italian part one


by Ernesto G. Laura

Alberto Sordi was born in 1920, started working in films in small parts as early as 1937, yet it wasn't until 1951 that someone gave him the lead in a film (MAMMA MIA, CHE IMPRESSIONE! - DEAR ME, WHAT A FRIGHT!), though it didn't open many doors for him until a year later when a director making his first film, Federico Fellini, had to fight with the producer to get Sordi for LO SCEICCO BIANCO (THE WHITE SHEIK). Unfortunately, Fellini's "opus one" was a complete flop, but when he made I VITELLONI (THE YOUNG STEERS) he insisted upon having Sordi for one of the leading roles. Success at last, both for the director and the actor, who managed to stand out in a film on a par with lots of able young actors (Franco Interlenghi, Leopoldo Tireste, Franco Fabrizi). A little later, an episode in the film UN GIORNO IN PRETURA (A DAY IN COURT) sketched out the specific contours of his personage, bringing him an enormous popularity.

Yet if one looks at the twenty or so films he made before then, the talent of the actor was already fully apparent; suffice it to remember the go-getting clerk in LE MISERIE DEL SIGNOR TRAVET (THE MISFORTUNES OF SIGNOR TRAVET: 1946) by Mario Soldati or the sinister individual in SOTTO IL SOLE DI ROMA (UNDER THE SUN OF ROME: 1948).

Why then did an expert actor have to wait some fifteen years in order to "make it"? The reason probably lies in the fact that he had not yet discovered his "personage" and his performances, however excellent, did not bring into focus a recognizable moral and psychological individuality, an "identity". He started his career, for example, under the wing of Oliver Hardy, when in 1937 he won the contest organized by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for the voice best suited to dubbing in Italian the voice of the partner of Stan Laurel. Laurel and Hardy were - and still are, thanks to television - highly popular in Italy. Sordi was able to gain access to the vaudeville stage precisely because he was presented as "the Italian voice of Oliver Hardy", whom he then went on to imitate. Breaking away from that model, he did a little of everything in the theater, capable, well-liked, but never really a celebrity. Since he was young and good-looking, during the war he accidentally co-starred in a heroic air-force film, I TRE AQUILOTTI (THE THREE YOUNG EAGLES: 1942) by Mario Mattoli, on a story by Vittorio Mussolini, the "Duce's" son. It was a completely "serious" role, which shows that producers had not recognized the actor's real talents.

These talents gradually came to the fore, thanks to the radio. In his search for an "identity", he even went so far as to try success as a radio singer. But it was most of all with certain characters ("Signore Dice", "Count Claro", "Mario Pio", "the parish buddies") that the artistic individuality of Alberto Sordi irresistibly began to take shape: on the one hand, the big grown-up baby, on the other the saucy, aggressive wise guy. It would be the sum total of these two characters, which were poles apart, that would go to form the unique "personage" Sordi brought to the screen: a cocky young man, meddlesome, aggressive, who suddenly reveals unexpected reserves of immaturity, certain childish characteristics which offer a fertile terrain for his comic streak.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

6. Political And Civil Satire: The Comedy Takes A Look At History part three


by Ernesto G. Laura

The trilogy concluded with ANNI RUGGENTI (ROARING TIMES: 1962) from a story by Amidei, Vincenzo Talarcio and the director himself and a script by Zampa, Ettore Scola and Ruggero Maccari. Set in the Fascist period, the film is vaguely based on the "gimmick" used by Gogol in THE INSPECTOR GENERAL. Omero, the protagonist, is in fact an obscure insurance salesman who in 1937 reaches a small town in the Puglia district and is taken by the local Party leader for an Inspector sent from Rome. Omero is one of the countless young men who grew up under Fascism and are innocently Fascist, having had no other political or civil experiences. But when he realizes that the town leaders have indulged in one speculation after the other, moving on the terrain of illegality and fraud, he will acquire an awareness he didn't have before. With his usual bitterness, Zampa does not offer immediate solutions: the young man, disgusted and disheartened, returns to Rome and the dishonesty will continue as before. Nino Manfredi, in the role of Omero, creates a complex figure, slow and laborious in its evolution, which is one of his finest performances of the '60s.

Eduardo De Filippo, in NAPOLI MILIONARIA (MILLIONAIRE NAPLES), based on a famous play of his by the same title, offers a broad canvas of the circumstances of a whole family in the decade between the beginning of World War II and the Liberation. Naples, with its dingy alleys, its scrubby houses, is carried to the screen with great love, introducing into the story that is also comcial notes of pain, a spiritual suffering, an age-old inner unrest. Eduardo plays, as he did on the stage, a veteran who comes home after years of fighting at the front and imprisonment in Germany and finds everything in ruins: his wife is involved in shady deals with a man with whom she is having an affair, his son is a petty thief and his daughter is on the way to becoming a prostitute. The poor man remains silent and observes that ruination, plunged into grief, yet it is precisely that silence of his, the very presence of someone who has experienced from beginning to bitter end the entire ordeal of the war, that will give the family the strength to start all over again. Recounted in these terms, the film could sound like a dismal social drama, but such is the Neapolitans' ageless familiarity with poverty and misfortune that the director-author-actor is able to alternate the gloomy moments with sunnier stretches of smiles, to criticize certain characters with the arms of ridicule, to frequently indulge in highly subtle satire. Toto appeared in NAPOLI MILIONARIA (MILLIONAIRE NAPLES) in the cameo role of an unemployed street-cleaner who "gets by" with frauds that are more fanciful than criminal.

L'ARTE DI ARRANGIARSI (THE ART OF GETTING BY) would be the title and subject of one of Luigi Zampa's most scathing films, the last one Vitaliano Brancati wrote before dying. But this film will be discussed in the following chapter, devoted to the actor who was the ideal interpreter of L'ARTE DI ARRANGIARSI (THE ART OF GETTING BY) and other films related to the history of contemporary Italy: Alberto Sordi.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

6. Political And Civil Satire: The Comedy Takes A Look At History part two


by Ernesto G. Laura - Compiled by A.N.I.C.A., Edited by CIES Soc. Coop. r. 1. under the auspices of the Ministery of Tourism and Entertainment

In 1953, amidst new and even more violent criticism, Zampa carried out the long-fondled project of providing ANNI DIFFICILI (HARD TIMES) with an ideal sequel. It was called ANNI FACILI (EASY TIMES). Vitaliano Brancati centered his story around another little man from the Sicilian provinces, a grade-school teacher, De Francesco, who is quite similar to the Piscitello of the other film. He barely manages to scrape by on a miserably low salary, in a postwar period that has not yet resolved the great social problems of the country, indeed seems them grow worse by the results of the war. His ambitious wife convinces him to move to Rome, because there, as an old anti-Fascist, he could count on influential friends who had risen to power and were in a position to help him make a career for himself. So De Francesco comes to Rome where his meager salary is even less sufficient than before to support his family. Without realizing it, he finds himself mixed up in a shady business involving ministerial graft. In the end, swamped by debts contracted for his daughter's wedding, he lets himself be talked into taking money for promoting a rich student. The misdeed is discovered and he ends up in jail. As the trial, he asks the judges to give him the maximum sentence, in order to set an example against the widespread corruption.

Just as Rossellini had turned the comedian Fabrizi into the dramatic actor of ROMA, CITTA APERTA (ROME, OPEN CITY), so Zampa chose for his "hero" the Neapolitan actor Nino Taranto, who, like Macario and Toto, was one of the most important representatives of the musical revue, and Taranto, stepping out of the farces he had up till then interpreted on the screen, proved to be a complete actor, always succeeding in striking just the right tone for balancing out the elements of drama and those of light comedy. The film, in depicting certain aspects of Rome in the '50s, does not fail to launch a ferocious attack on neo-Fascism, especially in the grotesque description of the meeting of a group of old Fascist leaders in a country house.

Monday, October 10, 2011

6. Political And Civil Satire: The Comedy Takes A Look At History 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

In 1950, the director Luigi Zampa wrote: "I have always chosen the subjects of my films in terms of a specific concept: that of stressing, through the complex and varied expression of a film, human situations in the social, political and spiritual atmosphere 'hot off the fire' as it were; that is to back up-sifting them through a careful criticism as impartial as possible - the events of the times and to record the meanings, the color, the morality of those times."

No better example could be given of the meaning of the films of Luigi Zampa, who as early as 1946, with VIVERE IN PACE (LIVE IN PEACE), introduced history into comedy, the momentous history of a nation, seen, however, through the experiences of the ordinary man, never of a hero, never of a "protagonist".

From the moment they appeared, these kinds of films stirred up a hornets' nest. Since comedies were made of smiles and marked by a light tone, some people found it offensive to joke about the even painful and tragic events of national history. They didn't understand that smiles can represent a form of taking stock, a way of criticizing, and that therefore comedy, when instead of escaping reality it sinks its roots deep, can foster the maturing of the citizen, help him understand his own past in order to better live his own present.

The film in particular that provoked unwarranted controversey was ANNI DIFFICILI (HARD TIMES), made in 1947/48 and awarded (but only for its "excellent technical workmanship") at the Venice Festival. Taken from a short novel by Vitaliano Brancati, Il vecchio con gli stivali (The Old Man With Boots), with a script written by the Sicilian novelist in collaboration with Sergio Amidei, Enrico Fulchignoni and Franco Evangelisti, it drew on the model biography of an ordinary little Italian, a city clerk in a Sicilian village, who, though understanding nothing about politics, joins the Mussolini party during the Fascist regime, otherwise he would have lost his job. (The Party membership-card was by no accident known as the "bread card" since without it it was hard to find work and consequently to eat.) The clerk, Piscitello, tries to be an honest Fascist just as he is an honest clerk, even though he is made uncomfortable by having anti-Fascist friends whose position he respects, just as they, on the other hand, understand his human predicament. The film, like the book, follows the historical events that befall Italy, from the point of view of the tiny Sicilian village and through the eyes of the insignificant Signor Piscitello: the African War in 1935/36, which his son Giovanni goes off to fight, the Spanish Revolution, where Giovanni also goes to risk his life, lastly World War II in which the boy dies at the front. With the liberation of Sicily, Piscitello loses his job because people accuse him of having compromised himself with the Fascist regime.

The alliance between the writer Brancati and the director Zampa was highly successful: the former transmitted to the latter his brilliant capacity for treating characters and situations ironically, bringing the Fascist period back to life with piercing satirical wit; the latter added his human warmth, which at times carried the events recounted by Brancati down the paths of sentiment and pathos, and his unerring ability to translate the written page into lively screen images. In the United States, ANNI DIFICILI (HARD TIMES) was presented in 1950 with an explanatory comment written by Arthur Miller and spoken by John Garfield.

Friday, October 7, 2011

5. The Episode Films part fifteen


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

As a curiosity, mention may be made in this period of I TRE VOLTI (THE THREE FACES), organized in 1965 by the producer Dino De Laurentiis to launch - in vain - the former Empress of Iran, Soraya, as a film star. The opening "number," entitled Prefazione (Preface), half-way between the alleged objective of a would-be documentary and the ironical desecration of a tabloid myth, in which Michelangelo Antonioni reconstructed the secret screen test given by De Laurentiis to the Shah's repudiated wife. The most amusing story, however, was the last, Latin Lover, directed by a young director, who died before his time, Franco Indovina (1932-1972), with elegant and restrained humor. Alberto Sordi, co-author of the script, with the faithful Sonego, dominated the screen however, reducing Soraya to the purely decorative role of "foil".

In many other films where the link between the episodes is accidental, often determined by the demands of distribution (more big box-office stars) or footage (enough episodes to fill the standard hundred minutes), only the really important episode need be mentioned. In I COMPLESSI (THE COMPLEXES: 1966), Luigi Filippo D'Amico (script by Sonego) tells the amusing story of a man with enormous buckteeth who wins a contest for television announcers only because no one, in the face of his brazen self-assurance, has the courage to tell him he is not suited to television. In LE FATE (THE FAIRIES: 1966), Antonio Pietrangeli (another story by Sonego) describes in Fata Marta (Martha The Fay) a situation similar to that of Chaplin's CITY LIGHTS: this time it's a rich lady who makes love to her butler only when she is under the effects of alcohol. In I NOSTRI MARITI (OUR HUSBANDS: 1966), the episode Il marito di Attilia (Attilia's Husband) by Dino Risi (written by Age, Scarpelli and Stefano Strucchi) tells the story of the uncomfortable situation of a carabineer (Tognazzi) finds himself in on a secret mission to the suburban underworld, disguised as a streetcleaner and forced to deal with a local crook's fierce jealousy of his wife. In LE COPPIE (THE COUPLES: 1968), it is the third episode, La camera (The Room), that stands out for its acuteness and brilliance of representations; directed and interpreted by Sordi, it tells the story of an ordinary man of modest means who decides to experience at least once a rich man's holiday and goes to a luxurious hotel on the Costa Smeralda in Sardinia , where he is icily disregarded as not being "up to" either the clientele or the personnel. In LA CONTESTAZIONE GENERALE (THE GENERAL DISSENT: 1970) by Luigi Zampa, the episode Concerto a tre pifferi (Three-Fife Concerto), made in the still-heated atmosphere of student dissent which started on the Berkeley campus in the United States, then exploded in Paris in May, 1968, and from there spread to Italy), effectively portrays the awkward attempt of a respectful office worker to contradict for once the industrial tycoon whose "errand-boy" he is, all this in order not to make a bad impression on his dissenter son. The contrast between the subtly nuanced performance of Nino Manfredi and the wonderful olf-fashioned show-stealing of French actor Michel Simon is a joy to watch.

In any case, at the beginning of the '70s, episode films went out of fashion, though some were produced from time to time. But it was precisely then that one of the most unique Italian directors (and poet, novelist, literary critic), Pier Paolo Pasolini, set the seal on the genre with three successive films in which comedy and in particular episode comedy was carried to a high level of artistic quality: IL DECAMERON (THE DECAMERON: 1971), I RACCONTI DI CANTEBURY (THE CANTERBURY TALES: 1972) and IL FIORE DELLE MILLE E UNA NOTTE (ARABIAN NIGHTS: 1974), the first derived from the book by Giovanni Boccaccio, the second from Chaucer and the third from the collection of Arabian folk tales by the same name. The best is probably IL DECAMERON, where some of the short stories by Boccaccio, literary gems of 14th century Italy, are moved from Florence to Naples and recreated in an atmosphere of exuberant vitality, set into motion by a taste for even cruel derision and incessant eroticism, and in a popular key effectively applied to the world of the Middle Ages.

Episode comedy reaches its highest moment in the literary trilogy of Pasolini. Spectacle and entertainment, neither of which are lacking, provide constant glimpses of human reality, the smile, or rather the open, often "wicked" laughter of the popular jest, conceal behind the mask of merriment sudden and unexpected dramatic turns.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

5. The Episode Films part fourteen


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 Ministery of Tourism and Entertainment

While episode films could have been at times a purely commerical operation, there is no doubt that they also interested directors who sought to express themeselves in a personal way. For example, Nanni Loy, in discussing his film MADE IN ITALY (1966) with the teachers and students of the Experimental Film Center (the state school for future film artists) , had this to say: "I made (...) MADE IN ITALY because (...) it seemed to offer me the chance to give expression in various and different directions, to 'show' a certain quantity of ideas, of stories and images that a one-story film, a self-contained film would have certainly not allowed". The film, conceived by Ettore Scola and Ruggero Maccari and with a script written by them with Loy, was meant to offer a sort of "guide" to Italy outside of and against the usual tourist format, catching the image of a changing society. In other words, a satirical film, as the titles of the individual "chapters" indicate; Usi e costumi (Habits and Usage); Il lavoro (Work); La donna (Women); Cittadini, stato e chiesa (Citizens, State and Church); La famiglia (The Family). It was interpreted by some of the biggest names in Italian movies, from Anna Magnani to Alberto Sordi, from Walter Chiari to Peppino De Filippo, from Nino Manfredi to Lea Massari, from Aldo Fabrizi to Virna Lisi.

Another director who resorted to episode films to carry forth certain rather critical ideas against social conventions was Tinto Brass. Milanese by birth but Venetian by family, Brass utilized the appearance of a UFO in IL DISCO VOLANTE (THE FLYING SAUCER: 1964) to interweave various anecdotes, all entrusted to Alberto Sordi, which as a whole form a satirically distorted image of the conformist mentality of a certain part of the Veneto region (the script-writer Sonego is also from the Veneto) as seen through the eyes of an "angry" and anarchiacally caustic director. The same iconoclastic imagination informs an episode of withering "black humor" directed by Brass and written by Sonego and Alberto Bevilacqua, L'uccellino (The Little Bird), for the film LA MIA SIGNORA (MY WIFE): a uxorcide planned and carried out by Sordi to the detriment of Silvana Mangano, with an elegant and smiling ease of conscience.

At the beginning of her career, Lina Wertmuller also used the episode film format to express her ideas in QUESTA VOLTA PARLIAMO DI UOMINI (THIS TIME LET'S TALK ABOUT MEN), written and directed by her in 1964 and starring Nino Manfredi, the vehilce of an amiable but explicit feminist approach to the role and function of women in a "male chauvinist" society.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

5. The Episode Films part thirteen


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 Ministery of Tourism and Entertainment

Among the directors reluctant to let themselves be enclosed into facile categories, Marco Ferreri showed he had grasped the dimensions of the short story in the excellent episode , Il professore (The Professor), in CONTROSESSO (COUNTERSEX: 1964), in which, with the help of a script by the Spanish humorist Rafael Azcona, Ugo Tognazzi draws, in the pithy tones of a psychological satire, the figure of a teacher, to outward appearances a moralist but actually afflicted by sexual deviations. Azcona is a specialist of "black humor" and is at his best in the script of L'UOMO DEI CINQUE PALLONI (THE MAN OF THE FIVE BALLOONS), directed by Ferreri as a feature film, then reduced to the dimensions of an episode in OGGI, DOMANI E DOPODOMANI (TODAY, TOMORROW AND THE DAY AFTER: 1965) and later re-edited and distributed in its original form. An industrialist (Marcello Mastroianni) comes home with some rubber balloons to blow up and gradually becomes obsessed by them ("how long do you have to blow before they burst?"), until he jumps out the window. The customary team of Ferreri, director, and Azcona, script-writer, comes up with a full-length episode film in 1966 MARCIA NUNZIALE (WEDDING MARCH). It consists of four stories about marriage, suspended between the present and the future. In Prime nozze (First Wedding), Tognazzi organizes an authentic wedding, down to the smallest details, between his bitch, Camilla, and the dachshund Luther; in Il dovere coniugale (Marriage Duty), the actor is an ordinary little man oppressed by an over-delicate and demanding wife, a meddlesome mother-in-law and a spoiled child; in Igiene coniugale (Marriage Hygene), Tognazzi and Alexandra Stewart are the symbols of an average American couple of New York in a certain satirical vision of the American way of life; in La famiglia felice (The Happy Family), lastly, the year is 1999, when men have invented life-size plastic dolls which substitute wives and children. The anarchism of the two-author team sough to emphasize the straits of the marriage bond and its ritualism. Valentino Orsini, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani had a couple of years earlier exploited the formula of the comedy of manners in episodes to take their stand in one of the civil struggles that at the time were shaking Italy to the roots: the struggle for the introduction of divorce. I FUORILEGGE DEL MATRIMONIO (THE OUTLAWS OF MARRIAGE: 1963) illustrated in six episodes the "extreme cases" cited in the bill presented in Parliament by the Honorable Mr. Sansone, pressing hard on the grotesque and the ironical and with Ugo Tognazzi and Annie Girardot in the leading roles.