Risate di gioia (The Passionate Thief, Mario Monicelli, 1960) marked a reunion for the Italian comedy director Mario Monicelli and the most illustrious Italian female screenwriter Suso Cecchi d’Amico after the huge success of I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street, Mario Monicelli, 1958). Based on Alberto Moravia’s two short stories “Le Risate di gioia” and “Ladri in Chiesa,” The Passionate Thief follows an extra at Cinecittà named Tortorella Fabbricotti (Anna Magnani) and records how she spends New Year’s Eve with old and new friends on the streets of Rome. Though planning to meet the group of friends in front of the fountain at the Piazza della Repubblica (Republic Square: back then, it was called Exedra Square) and have a dinner celebration, she misses them because of family trivialities. By good or bad luck, she ends up with her acquaintance from Cinecittà, Umberto Pennazzuto (Totò), for company and encounters some new night companions from Southern Italy, the United States and Germany. The night of festivities becomes so memorable for this pair of friends that the party goes on for Tortorella until eight months later. 

The collaborative relationship between Monicelli and D’Amico lasted from the 1950s to the 2000s. In 2006, they made the final film in both their careers, Le rose del deserto (The Roses of the Desert, Mario Monicelli, 2006). This sixty-year professional association not only represents a bond of true compatibility between the two neorealist filmmakers, but also evinces D’Amico’s enthusiasm for comedy. Working closely with many other legendary Italian filmmakers including Vittorio De Sica and Luigi Zampa to pioneer neorealist cinema, D’Amico had comparatively few chances to write comedies.1 The screenwriter believed, “it is impossible to teach comedy to someone. If the director doesn’t understand comedy it is pointless.”2 When Monicelli was still a B-list director and made Padri e figli (Father and Sons, Mario Monicelli, 1957) based on her suggestion of “a story about some small-time thieves,” D’Amico noticed his exceptional talent for making great Italian comedies.3 When developing The Passionate Thief’s script for Monicelli, she often co-wrote with the duo Age & Scarpelli, most likely in the living room of her Rome house.4 D’Amico distinguished comedy writing from her solitary process of developing dramas, believing that teamwork facilitated immediate communication with other professionals on what was written and thus foresaw the audience’s reactions to the film. She explained that 

writing drama is best done alone. But comedy is best written in a team. You must laugh when you’re writing and you can hear immediately if the lines are funny or not when you say them to each other.5

The Passionate Thief perfectly integrates the styles of Monicelli and D’Amico into one. It epitomises the true tradition of commedia all’italiana (Italian-style comedy), which inherited the social and political nature of neorealist cinema and was striking in its pessimistic tone. Made in the early years of Monicelli’s career, the film represents the personal discourse of its director through its typically neorealist focus on the lower rungs who were in penury and struggling to live on after the war.6 As a close friend and the best collaborator of many neorealist filmmakers, D’Amico always prepared herself to create the most suitable circumstances for each director and write the screenplay accordingly.7 When starting a project, she immersed herself in the environment she was working with; on the streets and with the people, she searched for opportunities to understand the time, milieu and culture fundamentally. In The Passionate Thief, it is evident that D’Amico incorporated her previous street research on the life of extras and pickpockets into an adaptation of Moravia’s stories and characterisation.8 The authentic representation of these minor perspectives in D’Amico’s script gave free rein to Monicelli’s tragicomic depiction of serendipity during the night in Rome. 

Meanwhile, the casting for this production brought about the only on-screen collaboration between the neorealist actress Magnani, who marked the greatest moment in Roma, città aperta (Rome Open City, Roberto Rossellini, 1945) with her brilliant performance, and the Italian cultural icon Totò. It also indicated that dubbing for foreign actors in an Italian production prevailed at this time, especially the petty pickpocket in the trio played by the American actor Ben Gazzara who was dubbed into a Sicilian accent. Totò and Magnani used to perform in variety theatre together, but during the ’50s, Magnani had already started a new page of her career in Hollywood and co-acting with Totò would no doubt have reminded her (and the audience) of their vaudeville past.9 Though it was not the most desirable option for her (she expected to return to the Italian film industry with higher prestige), Magnani appreciated the opportunity to work with Monicelli (and D’Amico again) on a project tailor-written for her.10 In the casino of Paradiso sul mare, Tortorella uses up her new year’s luck and wins the first prize of the night – that is, to perform the duet of “Geppina Gepì” with Umberto. This rendition is not only Tortorella’s most glamorous and decent moment in the film, but also briefly revives the theatre period of the actress and actor which was never recorded on film. The dynamic between them thus renders the thematic expression of the film beyond romance, or friendship, or the company of two lonely souls on New Year’s Eve. 

D’Amico was absolutely crucial in the vivid portrayal of the female protagonist. In Tortorella we might see the predecessor or continuation of Magnani’s character in Bellissima (Luchino Visconti, 1951). As the screenwriter recalled, “[Magnani] was an open book to me. I couldn’t make mistakes when I wrote for her, it wasn’t an option.”11 Because D’Amico always devoted herself to tailor-making roles for Magnani, we can always find recurring traits in her roles associated with the actress herself. In The Passionate Thief, Tortorella finds her place as an extra among the thousands in Cinecittà in order to fulfil her acting dream. Outside the studio complex, she faces the harsh truth without flinching when she realises that she is an “extra” everywhere she goes. 

As a typical commedia all’italiana with such a strong crew and cast, The Passionate Thief is surprisingly little known. This might be the result of its commercial failure with audiences and its underwhelming critical reception. However, the restoration makes amends for re-enjoying a night tour of the city of Rome and witnessing how Italians celebrated New Year’s Eve in 1960. Through the eyes of Monicelli and D’Amico, the audience will be able to revisit Cinecittà, Piazza della Repubblica, the famous Trevi Fountain, and the “miracle” at the Basilica of Sant’Andrea della Valle. 

Risate di gioia/The Passionate Thief (1960 Italy 106 min)

Prod Co: Titanus Prod: Silvio Clementelli Dir: Mario Monicelli Scr: Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Age & Scarpelli, Mario Monicelli Phot: Leonida Barboni Ed: Adriana Novelli Mus: Lelio Luttazzi Prod Des: Piero Gherardi Cos Des: Piero Gherardi 

Cast: Anna Magnani, Totò, Ben Gazzara, Fred Clark, Mac Ronay


  1. In an interview, D’Amico claimed her love for comedy, stating “I really liked to write comedies, but they never let me do many of those.” See A.G. Basoli and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, “Screenwriting with Your Eyes: An Interview with Suso Cecchi d’Amico,” Cinéaste, vol. 27, no. 4 (Fall 2002): p. 31.
  2. Mikael Colville-Andersen, Interview with Suso Cecchi d’Amico (Rome 1999).
  3. D’Amico described Monicelli as “a superb director, with the rare gift of comic timing — which cannot be taught, either you have it or you don’t.” See Basoli and D’Amico, p. 28.
  4. As her collaboration with other writers took place in her living room on a regular basis, it can be seen as an early form of writers’ rooms nowadays. See Mariapia Comand et al., “Italy” in Women Screenwriters: An International Guide, Jill Nelmes and Jule Selbo, eds. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 449.
  5. Colville-Andersen, 1999.
  6. Andrea Bini, “Male Anxiety and Psychopathology in Film: Comedy Italian Style” in Postwar Comedy: Neorealist Comedy and Pink Neorealism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), p. 62.
  7. Basoli and D’Amico, p. 31.
  8. Along with her close observation of people on the street, D’Amico “never made any bones about her regular ‘stealing’ of lots of ideas and character traits from novels, short stories and plays.” See M. Comand et al., p. 450.
  9. Chloe Walker, “How Anna Magnani became the face of Italian neorealism,” BFI, 30 April 2024.
  10. In this project, though Monicelli decided to pair Magnani and Totò, the director allowed the actress to choose her other collaborator. Magnani invited Paul Newman on board, yet due to his busy shooting schedule, she then brought in Ben Gazzara. See Matilde Hochkofler, Anna Magnani (Milan: Bompiani, 2013), p. 172-3.
  11. Basoli and D’Amico, p. 30.

About The Author

Yilin (River) Jiang is a Ph.D. candidate in Screen and Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne. Her doctoral research explores the global auteur cinema from the 1960s to 1990s, interrogating the concept of personal filmmaking through the works and creative practices of Godard, Akerman, Tarkovsky, Coppola and Wong Kar-wai. Her broader research interests include film philosophy, creative practice theory, art history, and moving image art. River also works as a film panellist at the Melbourne International Film Festival since 2018 and as an academic tutor at the University of Melbourne since 2022.

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