When he was 92 years old, Italian filmmaker Mario Monicelli, who created some of the greatest Italian film comedies, unrepentantly said that he was —is— and will always be a communist. He directed more than 60 films. Monicelli died this week by jumping from his 5th story hospital room window where he was being treated for prostate cancer.
It was the time of George Bush and Silvio Berlusconi when Monicelli declared his communist bona fides. Back then his political stance seemed less defiant than anachronistic. But from reading Tony Judt’s remarkable book, “Postwar Europe,” one learns just how close Italy and France came to having communist majorities and how Cold-War manipulations gave Stalin control of the “East,” in return for the U.S. laying claim to an allegiance with Western Europe. It’s in the spirit of that postwar idealism that Monicelli embraced the freedom of the proletariat.
Unquestionably his breakthrough international success was the 1958 film “Big Deal On Madonna Street.” The basis of the film is a caper plot: A half-dozen, half-baked crooks decide to “scientifically” break into a vacant apartment through coal chutes and over roof tops, and then use a carjack-- all to break into the office next door where a fortune awaits them in a safe. But the ever-clever Monicelli turns the caper into a farce by using a series of plot situations filled with gags which are simply hilarious. The young Marcello Mastroianni plays one of the gang members. He is a master photographer. His job is to shoot from the rooftop through an open window and film the safe combination as it is being opened. The gang watches the finished film. Just as we are about to learn the combination, underwear on a clothesline drifts across the office window as the Mastroianni’s baby cries, and the film slips off the sprockets. The camera, which didn’t work very well anyway, was stolen from a flea market.
The comic situations belie Monicelli’s proletarian sympathies. At some point in the film, almost all of the characters land in jail. Marcello, the photographer, is at home with the baby because his wife is in jail.
Monicelli says, “This was a reality at the time. It existed. Everyone, to survive, had to do what was necessary. One sold cigarettes on the black market and so he eventually went to prison….the little old man who ate all the time survived by pick pocketing on the bus. They were not big criminals.”
For Monicelli, the inept crooks are disenfranchised human beings caught up in the unemployment of postwar Italy.
Unquestionably, Monicelli had an eye for talent. He’s credited with launching the careers of or collaborating with some of Italy’s greatest 20th century actors: Monica Vitti, Gian Maria Volonte, Vittorio de Sica, Anna Magnani, Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni and Vittorio Gassman. Claudia Cardinale was just 17 when Monicelli cast her in “The Big Deal On Madonna Street.” But perhaps his greatest collaboration was with Toto. This actor—whose adopted name was Antonio Focas Flavio Angelo Ducas Comneno De Curtis di Bisanzio Gagliardi—is the almost indescribable comic presence in many of Monicelli’s best films, including “Big Deal on Madonna Street”.
Toto’s ability to transform the poor man into “everyman” —to endow humanity, irony and nobility to an odd-looking and physically inarticulate little man of the lowest classes— corresponds with Monicelli’s lifelong battle to give voice and image to the under-privileged, under-represented people living on the margins.
Monicelli’s greatest films, like “The Organizer,” in which Mastroianni plays a former school teacher who comes to 19th century Turin to organize exploited textile workers, reveal the essence of inequality and injustice.
All of his life, Monicelli was an activist. He made films well into his 90s. He lampooned Italian infatuation with the cheap opportunism of Berlusconi and his cronies, fought against the recent fiscal cuts to culture in Italy, encouraged young people to rebel and said that Italian cinema was incapable of representing Italy as it really is. What made his chosen métier, film comedy, possible, he said, was because Italian comedy “revolves around arguments and…themes that are very dramatic and sometimes tragic. This is a type of comedy that grows precisely out of the fact that [this is how] Italians see reality and life.”
For Monicelli, who was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer some months ago, euthanasia, which is illegal in Italy, was not an option. In a great tribute to his genius and the independence of his spirit, the critic Paolo Mereghetti said in Corriere della Sera that in his final months Monicelli “couldn’t see a future for himself…his death was a final proclamation of freedom in an anarchic life. He wanted to decide everything all by himself right to the end as in his movies.”
Milos Stehlik is Worldview's film contributor and the director of Facets Multi-Media.
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