To think about Italian cinema in the immediate postwar era is almost inevitably to conjure up heartrending images from the classic neo-realist films like Roberto Rossellini’s Roma città aperta (1945) and Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948). Yet, as the better-informed historians of Italian cinema have never ceased to point out, for all its critical acclaim at home and its prestige as art cinema abroad, neo-realism never gained much purchase over Italian audiences themselves who, having just lived through the traumatic experiences of the war, naturally gravitated to the happier fare of either Hollywood films or home-grown comedy and other lighter escapist genres (1). Comedy had, in fact, always occupied pride of place in Italian cinema, even during the Fascist period, and in the postwar era the genre would rise to become one of the major pillars of national cinema production and the one contributing most to Italian films finally, if only briefly, being able to compete successfully on Italian screens with the Hollywood juggernaut.
Truth to tell, neo-realist films themselves often included some comic elements. One remembers, for example, how, leading up to one of the most tragic moments in Roma città aperta, that of Pina’s death, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), in a desperate move to keep the old man (Turi Pandolfini) quiet as the Fascists and Germans search the building, has to whack him, in true slapstick fashion, on the head with a frypan. In retrospect, of course, it’s difficult not to credit such a comic touch to Federico Fellini’s collaboration on the screenplay. As time went on, however, and even as neo-realism experienced the brief flowering of its spring, Italian audiences made ever clearer their preference for laugh-out-loud comedy. So, tellingly, in 1948 Bicycle Thieves, critically acclaimed at home and soon to also receive an Oscar nomination, could only manage eighth place at the Italian box office, bettered in first and fourth place by two films starring the popular comic actor Totò (2). Reading the writing on the wall, neo-realist directors were soon working towards a lighter and more entertaining variation of the form which came to be known, rather pejoratively in leftist critical circles, as neorealismo rosa or “pink” (or “rose-coloured”) neo-realism. Yet, even what came to be regarded as the flagship film of this sort of “neo-realism lite”, Giuseppe De Santis’ Riso amaro (Bitter Rice, 1949) only managed to achieve fifth place at the box office for 1949 – in spite of it being one of the most popular and highest-grossing of all the neo-realist films – beaten in third and fourth place by two other films starring Totò. In 1952 De Sica’s Umberto D, nominated that year for the Grand Prize at Cannes and subsequently nominated for an Academy Award, failed to even make it into that year’s top ten highest-grossing films. The box office for the year was headed by the first of what would eventually become six Don Camillo films, which transferred to the screen the endless comic tussles in a small town of the Po Valley between a pugnacious parish priest and his nemesis, the Communist mayor, Peppone, portrayed in the popular novels of Giovanni Guareschi.
Firmly established through all these successes, the comedy genre was set to increase its domination of Italian screens even further in the following years as high rating comedies now came ready-made to generate their inevitable sequels. In 1953, just as Julien Duvivier’s Il ritorno di Don Camillo (The Return of Don Camillo) gave signs of repeating the huge box office success of its predecessor, Luigi Comencini released Pane, amore e fantasia (Bread, Love and Dreams), a perfectly-fashioned exemplar of “rosy” neo-realism. Set in a poor rural village in central Italy and starring Gina Lollobrigida in one of her first substantial roles, the film was able to show an Italy afflicted with almost Third World poverty while at the same time offering only love and dreams as consolation. The film was so popular, topping the box office for that year, that it immediately generated an equally popular sequel, Pane, amore e gelosia (Bread, Love and Jealousy, aka as Frisky, 1954), also directed by Comencini, which repeated the successful elements of the formula well enough to come in second at the box office that year, only slightly behind Mario Camerini’s Hollywood-inflected blockbuster, Ulisse (Ulysses, 1954). Given its proven success, the formula – with the setting moved to seaside Sorrento and Lollobrigida substituted by the up-and-coming Sophia Loren – was taken up again a year later by director Dino Risi in Pane, amore e… (Scandal in Sorrento, 1955) which was able to beat the third Don Camillo film, Don Camillo e l’onorevole Peppone (Don Camillo’s Last Round, Carmine Gallone, 1955) for first place at the Italian box office for that year. A year later Risi himself initiated an urban version of the consolatory Bread and Love formula with his Poveri ma belli (Poor But Beautiful, 1956), which topped the annual box office, its commercial success effortlessly repeated a year later by its sequel in a feminine key, Povere ma belle (Pretty But Poor, 1957).
These were all generically home-grown “Italian” comedies, of course, but 1958 saw the advent of a film that appeared to herald a distinctively new, and much more mordant, style of comedy that would later be characterised as commedia all’italiana or comedy Italian style. The film was I soliti ignoti.
Directed by Mario Monicelli, a prolific screenwriter-director who had already, among other things, been responsible for half a dozen of the Totò films, I soliti ignoti – in America rather haphazardly titled Big Deal on Madonna Street but better translated as something like The Usual (Unknown) Suspects – breathed in a new comic air. An obvious but inventive parody of the French heist-gone-wrong film Du rififi chez les homes (Rififi, Jules Dassin, 1955), itself influenced by the American crime film, I soliti ignoti followed the doomed plan of five petty thieves from the lower quarters of Rome to set themselves up for life by breaking into the safe of a local pawnbroker’s shop. The dismally planned robbery is predicated on the motley gang’s ability to break through the wall of an adjoining apartment, something that they hilariously fail to do, having to content themselves in the end with some leftover pasta and chickpeas from the apartment fridge. Thanks to a brilliant screenplay by Monicelli and screenwriting duo Age and Scarpelli, whose screenplays would from then on be synonymous with the genre, the characters are equally comic stereotypes in the tradition of the commedia dell’arte and finely drawn individuals whose basic humanity we recognise and even sympathise with. At the same time, Piero Umiliani’s cool jazz score and the stunning black-and-white cinematography of Gianni Di Venanzo combined to give the film an unprecedented modern look. Thus, with perhaps only the slightest benefit of hindsight, the cameo appearance of veteran comic actor Totò, playing the role of senior advisor to the gang, would subsequently be read as an allegorical passing of the comic baton from the older and more innocent “pink neo-realist” comedies to this decidedly more streetwise, and indeed more cynical, comedy “Italian style”. A premonition of how ruthless and hard-edged this new comedy could become in wielding its bitter satirical scalpel was given by the presence of death in the film, explicitly shown in an early scene where Cosimo, the monumentally-inept but original mastermind of the scheme, meets his end under the wheels of a speeding tram.
Over and above the great success of I soliti ignoti at the Italian box office, and its well-deserved Oscar nomination in the following year, one of the film’s greatest achievements proved to be the blinding revelation of Vittorio Gassman’s previously-unsuspected natural aptitude for comedy. Buoyed by this revelation, Monicelli paired Gassman with Alberto Sordi, the other actor who had begun to display a great capacity for bittersweet comedy, to make the first major milestone of commedia all’italiana, La grande guerra (The Great War, 1959). Aided once again by a brilliant screenplay by Age and Scarpelli, Monicelli was able to lay bare the petty vices and character weaknesses of ordinary Italians (Sordi and Gassman play Roman and Milanese recruits, respectively, and for much of the film display the stereotypical prejudices of Northern and Southern Italians), although these clearly paled into insignificance when measured against the officially-sanctioned insanity of the war itself. La grande guerra topped the box office in 1959, well above Rossellini’s last serious attempt at neo-realism, Il Generale della Rovere (General Della Rovere, 1959), which came in at ninth place, Nevertheless, the two films shared the Golden Lion at Venice that year, showing that comedy was finally coming to be critically accepted as “quality” cinema. The success of Monicelli’s use of comedy to revisit one of the most tragic events of Italian history prompted Comencini to follow suit in exploring the debacle of the Italian armistice with the Allies in 1943 in his Tutti a casa (Everybody Go Home, 1960). The armistice, negotiated secretly with the Allies by the King and Marshall Badoglio and only eventually communicated to Italians via a public radio broadcast, had in fact been a monumental true-life comedy of errors – indeed, a classic case of comic-if-it-hadn’t-been-so-tragic for ordinary Italians – and the clever screenplay by Age and Scarpelli milked it for all the tragicomedy it was worth.
A year later Risi extended commedia all’italiana’s gloss on recent Italian history to the threshold of Italy’s so-called “economic miracle” of the late 1950s with Una vita difficile (A Difficult Life, 1961), in which an ex-partisan, played by Alberto Sordi in one of his finest performances, finds all his hopes for a better Italy progressively and comprehensively crushed as the country begins its shift into affluence.
It’s at this time, then, that the commedia all’italiana enters something of a classical phase as it begins, in the words of film historian Rémi Fournier Lanzoni, “to perform an analytical form of ‘social autopsy’” on the anthropological changes being wrought by the “economic miracle” (3).
A high point of the genre during this period is undoubtedly Risi’s Il sorpasso (The Good Life, 1962). Featuring Gassman in one of his most accomplished performances and iconic roles, the film is a profoundly amusing but also disturbing portrayal of the euphoric cynicism generated by the economic “boom”. As the first real Italian road movie – the country’s autostrada network was only just coming into being at the time – the film presents an allegory of a rapidly changing Italy, hurling itself down the road to affluence and consumerism. Tellingly, for all of Gassman’s effervescent bravado, the film ends with the tragic death of Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the poor student whom he has picked up and transported all over Italy.
But perhaps one of the best exemplifications of the commedia all’italiana’s ability to use bitter satire to engage critically with the moral dilemmas and social contradictions generated by the advent of the “economic miracle” was provided a year later by the veteran team of De Sica and Cesare Zavattini with their aptly-titled, Il boom (1963). Pushed to the edge of bankruptcy by the need to keep up the appearance of financial success, small-time Roman businessman, Giovanni Alberti, played in inimitable style by Sordi, is soon inescapably confronted with the stark and unenviable choice of either losing his family and putative friends or having to sell one of his eyes. The chilling logic of the film’s conclusion exemplifies what remained a distinguishing feature of the commedia all’italiana with respect to comedy more generally, that is, the absence, indeed the impossibility, of a happy ending (4).
By now one of the acknowledged masters of the genre, Risi furnished a veritable rogues gallery and kaleidoscope of the perverted values of the new moral landscape in his multi-episode film I mostri (The Monsters, 1963). By this time, too, Pietro Germi, a Genovese director who had been the author of a half-dozen small neo-realist masterpieces during the immediate postwar period, had relocated himself to Sicily where he created a distinctly regional version of the new comedy with his critically acclaimed Divorzio all’italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1961). He followed this film three years later with its quasi-sequel, Sedotta e abbandonata (Seduced and Abandoned, 1964). The genre continued to reflect – and to reflect upon – the mutating social mores of a rapidly changing Italy in films like Alessandro Blasetti’s Io, io, io e gli altri (Me, Me, Me and the Others, 1965) and Risi’s Il profeta (The Prophet, 1968). Although undoubtedly less incisive than many of Risi’s previous efforts at bitter social satire, Il profeta’s hermit protagonist, played predictably by Gassman, does manage to effectively lampoon the vapid revolutionary aspirations of the youth and hippie movements in Italy at the time.
As the genre began to grow stale in the early 1970s it nevertheless acquired new life in the hands of Lina Wertmuller. Having already dabbled in the genre in the mid-1960s when she had answered Ettore Scola’s Se permettete parliamo di donne (Let’s Talk about Women, 1964) with her Queste volta parliamo di uomini (This Time Let’s Talk about Men, 1965), Wertmuller now went on to give the genre a new mordancy and something of a feminist inflection in films like Mimì metallurgico ferito nell’onore (The Seduction of Mimì, 1972), Tutto a posto e niente in ordine (All Screwed Up, 1974) and Pasqualino Settebellezze (Seven Beauties, 1975).
By general consensus, however, the genre reached its culmination in Scola’s C’eravamo tanto amati (We All Loved Each Other So Much, 1974) – a perfect film which manages to present an amusing and profoundly moving history of both postwar Italy and postwar Italian cinema. As well as a sentimental history of postwar Italian society, the film also presented a touching homage to De Sica who appeared in a cameo in the film but then died at the time it was being edited. But these were now darker times in Italy with the “economic miracle” only a vague memory and the country caught in the grip of the political violence and social conflict that would lead to this period being commonly known as gli anni di piombo (years of lead).
With a certain insouciance Monicelli, Risi and Scola came together to present an updated rogues gallery in the portmanteau film I nuovi mostri (The New Monsters, 1977), drawing splendid performances from Gassman, Sordi and Ugo Tognazzi. Yet the final episode of the film, in which Sordi presides at the funeral of a veteran comic, presages a valediction for the entire genre.
In the same year the irreconcilable contradictions now lacerating Italian society found an echo in Monicelli’s Un borghese piccolo piccolo (An Average Little Man, 1977) in which Sordi, brilliant as always, plays a lower middle-class Italian father who, following the accidental death of his son at the hands of a young radical student, turns from a mild-mannered family man (the petit bourgeois of the title) into a ferocious torturer and killer.
In 1980, Scola, as one of the grand old practitioners of the commedia all’italiana, sought to bring together a who’s who of the genre in La terrazza (The Terrace, 1980) in what appeared to be an attempt to sum up the genre. However, times had definitely changed and even faithful aficionados were forced to admit that rather than a summa of the genre La terrazza appeared to merely write its epitaph.
The 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival (31 July – 17 August) features a program stream on commedia all’italiana. Find out more and purchase tickets at the MIFF website.
1. See, among others, Peter Bondanella, A History of Italian Cinema, Continuum, New York and London, 2009, pp. 65-66.
2. The calculations of box office receipts are notoriously rubbery but here I’m relying on the annual top ten lists supplied by Carlo Celli and Marga Cottino-Jones in A New Guide to Italian Cinema, Palgrave MacMillan, New York and Houndmills, Basingstoke, 2007, pp. 171 ff. Bondanella puts The Bicycle Thief (as it was called in America) in 11th place for the 1948-49 season (p. 65).
3. Rami Fournier Lanzoni, Comedy Italian Style: The Golden Age of Italian Film Comedies, Continuum, New York and London, 2008, p. 50. See also his “Chronicles of a Hastened Modernisation: The Cynical Eye of the Commedia all’italiana”, The Italian Cinema Book, ed. Peter Bondanella, BFI, London, 2014, pp. 188-194. The two most comprehensive histories of the genre in Italian, which also cover this classic phase, remain Enrico Giacovelli, La commedia all’italiana: La storia, i luoghi, gli autori, gli attori, i film, Gremese Editore, Rome, 1995, and Masolino d’Amico, La commedia all’italiana: il cinema comico in Italia dal 1945 al 1975, 2nd ed., il Saggiatore, Milano, 2008.
4. See Giacovelli, pp. 10 ff.