The ever popular I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street, Mario Monicelli, 1958) is a pivotal film in Italian cinema. It marks the end of 1950s “pink neo-realism”, which adapted neo-realist settings to the romantic youth comedy (see, for example, Dino Risi’s Poveri ma belli ). The film also updated the sympathetic proletarian cops and robbers comedy (such as Mario Monicelli and Steno’s Guardie e ladri  andAlessandro Blasetti’s Peccato che sia una canaglia ) by introducing a bitter element that satirised the emerging consumerist values. These were the “Commedia all’Italiana” that had their heyday in the peak years of the economic boom (1958-1964). The key characteristics of the new genre were an acerbic humor rendered with a dramatic visual style that touched on real social issues, counterpointed with farcical, over-the-top and often unsympathetic central characters. The antinomy between drama and farce addressed the psychological condition of increasing cynicism of urbanised Italians faced with the unreality and ethical dilemma of the economic miracle. The new comedy genre thus revolved around shallow but successful leading characters pushed by narcissistic drives towards profit and self-satisfaction while denying communal ethical values.
I soliti ignoti “launches” the new genre by creating comedy with dramatic undertones. In keeping with this, the leading comic character is played by Vittorio Gassman, an actor previously known for his roles as a villain – in films such as Giuseppe De Santis’ Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice,1949) and King Vidor’s War and Peace (1956). It is also the first time an Italian comedy featured the death of one of its main characters; while Rome itself is photographed like a film noir by Gianni Di Venanzo, a cinematographer best known for his work with Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini. The film highlights the cloudy and rainy days of winter as dramatic lighting cuts across suburban roads at night. It also leaves behind the swimmers in the Tiber or girls at Piazza di Spagna, showing the new un-glamorous apartments and high-rise buildings of the Roman suburbs and borgate: Appio, Prati Fiscali, Casal Bertone, Batteria Nomentana. Finally the parody of the caper movie – The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950), Du Rififi chez les hommes (Jules Dassin, 1955), The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956) and The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955) – sets a narrative frame linking these locations and revealing the contradictions of the “new” Italian economic reality through social satire (1).
The film’s title refers to the usual “unknown” suspects for a crime. It has been loosely translated as Person Unknown in Britain and retitled Big Deal on Madonna Street in the United States. The plot revolves around the heist of a lifetime involving the cracking of the safe of the local state-run pawnshop, set in the centre of Rome. While incarcerated for a botched car robbery, Cosimo speaks to the builder of a fake wall built between the room housing the safe and an adjacent empty apartment. To get out of prison, Cosimo pays Peppe “the Panther” (Gassman), a failed boxer, to confess to the failed robbery in his place. But, as in most of the film, nothing works as planned. Peppe stays in prison with Cosimo, and when he learns of the robbery decides to pursue the heist himself. Peppe, like his companions in the venture, is no professional thief – all of the gang members have no regular occupations and live off occasional opportunities. Love, family and food, not work, are their main concerns. Ferribotte (Tiberio Murgia) is looking after his cloistered sister. Mario (Renato Salvatori), an orphan, is after maternal love. Capannelle (Carlo Pisacane) needs to satisfy his never-ending hunger. Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni) needs distraction from his fatherly duties while his wife is in prison. Peppe talks about money but what he really wants is love and, like Mario, will submit to work only if there is the promise of something else. As in most “Commedia all’Italiana” there is a dominant male attitude. The male characters of the film are unethical and immature, while the more down to earth female characters function as projections of their fears and desires.
One of the most novel aspects of I soliti ignoti is its handling of the main characters and their relationships to the genre of tragedy and the social urban background. The introduction of the characters, moving from figure one to the next, follows the tradition of the picaresque narrative, producing a “chanson de geste” of the sub-proletarian world. The heroic-comic group is shaped by a series of tests and actions leading not to the Grail but to a more modest plate of pasta e ceci (2). This structure was often repeated by Monicelli to suggest a micro or counter-history made up of stories of unknown people in counterpoint to official historical accounts. The combination of the tragic and the comic signals the arrival of a more mature form of comedy foregrounding the crisis of the modern subject caught between social destiny and personal satisfaction.
The caper story is therefore mostly a pretext for foregrounding the desires of the unlikely robbers and their largely unattainable dream of another life. The myth of the heist, of a life changed overnight, was the necessary companion to an Italian system that didn’t guarantee individual satisfaction. The term “economic miracle” immediately betrayed a sense of unreality that defied human expectation. In the 1950s work was so scarce that day-by-day living emerged as a more appealing and realistic approach. Already in Fellini’s I vitelloni (1953) and Il bidone (1955) there is critical attitude towards work. Even by 1958 a large portion of the Italian population was still struggling to survive the aftermath of the war. Limited work opportunities, large-scale analphabetism and low wages pushed the traditional rural Italian workforce towards migration to industrialised urban centres. This had significant cultural and economic consequences. Around ten million Italians migrated to urban areas during the 1950s and 1960s, while “the sizable rural base of 42 per cent of the population working in agriculture in 1951 fell to 29 per cent by 1961”. In the same period, the national income doubled (3). Besides Tiberio and Mario most of the characters in I soliti ignoti are not from Rome: Ferribotte and Carmelina (Claudia Cardinale) are from Sicily, Nicoletta (Carla Gravina) is from Padova, Dante (Totò) is from Naples, and Capannelle is from Emilia. A sense of displacement is enhanced by Monicelli’s interest in “playing with the characters” and their language to reflect regional variations (4). He therefore had the characters dubbed (as was customary in Italy) against their original regional identity. The Neapolitan Pisacane plays the Emilian Capannelle, the Sardinian Murgia is the Sicilian Ferribotte, while debutant Cardinale, born in Tunisia and unable at the time to speak fluent Italian, is dubbed into Sicilian to play Carmelina.
Following the Italian realist aesthetic, I soliti ignoti was shot on location in and around Rome. Ithas a documentary-style approach to urban reality, particularly of the Roman suburbs, and provides a photographic portrait of the coming of the modern city. The combination of Rome and cinema was one of Italy’s main success stories in this era and the modern city, sprawling with thousands of new apartments around the old one, was an example of the new urbanisation (5). The displacement of the characters is not just lingual but is also visualised through the city locations. The mapping of the characters’ movements edits together many novel or different vistas of Rome, showing the variety of dwellings occupied by the new inhabitants. Capannelle lives in slums along the railway in Via Collatina at the extreme western periphery of the city; Ferribotte in the old popular suburb of San Lorenzo; Mario in the new peripheral high-rise buildings of Val Melaina (Rome North); and Dante, the safe cracking expert, in Casal Bertone, Rome East. The locations produce a multifaceted urban environment opposing the modern city to the old, and the suburb to the centre (were the pawnshop is located). The film implicitly suggests the desire of the neophyte citizen to conquer the traditional city, to acquire a new urban status overnight.
When I soliti ignoti was first released on 30 June 1958 it didn’t garner all that much attention. Certainly, it didn’t seem likely to turn out to be one of the most popular comedies in all of Italian cinema. It was the beginning of summer, and the film seemed like many other previous comedies that had utilised regional and social stereotypes. Mario Monicelli, having started alongside the more celebrated Steno, had only been directing by himself for the previous five years. Up to this time he was mostly known for a number of good original comedies – the censored Totò e Carolina (1955) and Un eroe dei nostri tempi (1957) with Alberto Sordi – but didn’t have significant critical or commercial success. Supporting actors Roberto Salvatori and Marcello Mastroianni were mostly popular as romantic leads, but certainly weren’t major stars at the time. The film was then noticed at the Locarno Film Festival (where it won the Golden Sail) and at San Sebastián (where is was honoured with the Silver Seashell). It was re-released nationally in October to large success.
Along with The Ladykillers, Monicelli’s film is probably one of cinema’s most influential crime comedies and has led to a large number of imitations. In Italy it was remade or reworked twice as Audace colpo dei soliti ignoti (Nanni Loy, 1959) and I soliti ignoti 20 anni dopo (Amanzio Todini, 1985). In the US it had two remakes, Crackers (Louis Malle, 1982) and Welcome to Collingwood (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2002). It was also the basis for Bob Fosse’s musical Big Deal, and later an inspiration for Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996) and Small Time Crooks (Woody Allen, 2000).
I soliti ignoti will be screening at the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival (31 July – 17 August) as part of a program stream on commedia all’italiana. Find out more and purchase tickets at the MIFF website.
1. Roberta Di Carmine, “Comedy ‘Italian Style’ and I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street, 1958)”, A Companion to Film Comedy, ed. Andrew Horton and J. E. Rapf, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2012.
2. Gian Piero Brunetta, Storia del cinema italiano, 1982/3, p. 537.
3. Maggie Günsberg, Italian Cinema: Gender and Genre, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, Basingstoke and New York, 2005, p. 60.
4. Stefano Della Casa, Storia e storie del cinema popolare italiano, La Stampa, Turin, 2001, p. 68.
5. It has been calculated that in the 1950s and 1960s almost 10 million Italians moved from small town and rural areas to major urban centres. See Guido Crainz, Storia del miracolo italiano, Donzelli, Rome, 2003.