Mario Monicelli grew up in a middle-class family deeply involved in literary and political journalism, so this outstanding director of commedia all'italiana was steeped from the start in the idea that art and entertainment could be intimately connected with the state of the real world. His very first film effort--a prize-winning short made in 1935--starred nonprofessionals as The Boys of Paul Street (I ragazzi dela via Paal). After apprenticing as assistant director and scriptwriter with Gustav Machatay, Pietro Germi, and Mario Camerini, Monicelli teamed up with Stefano Vanzina, aka Steno, who was a dab hand at writing comedy and helped to direct their first eight features. Monicelli has enjoyed the support of some of the best comic scripters, including Age and Scarpelli, in fusing elements of postwar neorealism with an older slapstick tradition drawn from music halls and comic magazines.
Monicelli's movies focus on ordinary people who talk and live down-and-dirty. These are folk who haven't the resources to rise, and even give the chance to do so, are clueless creators of comic no-win situations. Finding laugh-out-loud talent in a former Shakespearean performer like Vittorio Gassman, in Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale, mining the reliable hilarity of Tot˛, Ugo Tognazzi, Alberto Sordi, Nino Manfredi, Bernard Blier, Philippe Noiret, et al., Monicelli produced cheap, exuberant comÚdie humaine out of the often farcical plight of the common man. His Everyman was often hilariously, destructively self-absorbed, a lovable fool abroad in a world full of incomprehensible, unfriendly forces. At the height of the 50s Italian "economic miracle," Monicelli was lobbing satirical grenades at institutionalized hypocrisy and conformity, and every other kind of social delusion and malaise. Courageously, this cinematic, comedic Jeremiah marries black, often grotesque humor to cultural criticism, taking devastating potshots at bloated targets on every front.
At work since 1949, Monicelli hasn't flagged in his taste for sending up society's sacred cows: his most recent film, Looking for Paradise (1996), chronicles the tragi-comic existential journey of a young woman, through all of the major psychosocial phases of the 20th century and into the next. Join us for a round of serious comedy--fun with teeth--as the Walter Reade presents a dozen films by Mario Monicelli, maestro of social farce and satire.
program notes and times
BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET / I SOLITI IGNOTI
(1958; 105 minutes)
Classic satire of heist movies, with a bunch of would-be caper artists bungling every aspect of the "perfect crime." (The Italian title translates as "the usual unidentified persons.") Pauline Kael especially praised Monicelli's "gentle, casually underplayed comedy" in BIG DEAL: "The thieves are ambitious, good-natured, and hopeful, but they are easily distracted; when they should be concentrating on plans, they become hungry to fall in love or quarrel or fuss over a sleepless baby. With Marcello Mastroianni (as a simpleton), Vittorio Gassman, Renato Salvatori, Claudia Cardinale...and as the leading safecracker in Italy (now near-senile)...the superb clown Tot˛--a stylized image of fatigue, sadness, decadence." With hilarious silent-film intertitles and a bouncy jazz score.
Friday, January 3: 4 and 8:15 pm
Saturday, January 4: 6:45 pm
Tuesday, January 7: 6 pm
THE GREAT WAR /LA GRANDE GUERRA
(1959; 142 minutes)
The Powers That Were naturally resented the anti-heroic flavor of this controversial W.W. II saga. Following the sorry adventures of a duo of two-bit hoods (Alberto Sordi and Vittorio Gassman) THE GREAT WAR exposes ordinary soldiers as clueless about The Big Picture--they just want to get home as quickly as possible. Monicelli aims for potent realism, emphasizing the discomforts of cold, fleas, hunger, and constant fear of death at the front. A major hit in Italy, The GREAT WAR allows its hapless heroes to discover a kind of nobility as they are overrun by larger-than-their-lives events. With Silvano Mangano.
Saturday, January 4: 4 pm
Sunday, January 5: 8:30 pm
Tuesday, January 7: 2 pm
(1960; 105 minutes)
Anna Magnani had just returned from the US where she had filmed The Fugitive Kind with Marlon Brando. She stars as a CinecittÓ extra who teams up with a longtime admirer, who is an out-of-work actor (Ben Gazzara), and a pickpocket (Tot˛, now almost blind) to fleece guests at a posh New Year's Eve party.
Saturday, January 4: 8:45 pm
Sunday, January 5: 4 pm
THE ORGANIZER / I COMPAGNI
(1963; 126 minutes)
The film's Italian title--Comrades-- is closer to the flavor of this serious treatment of labor troubles and the rise of socialism in turn-of-the-century Turin. A down-at-heels aristocrat and academic (a powerfully low-key Marcello Mastroianni) tries to unionize factory workers into striking to win better pay and working conditions. As usual, Monicelli punches up his serious social commentary with humanizing though black humor. The period is evoked in picturesque detail, often evoking the look of old daguerreotypes. THE ORGANIZER received an Oscar nomination for story and screenplay. With Annie Giradot.
Sunday, January 5: 6 pm
Monday, January 6: 2 and 6:30 pm
Tuesday, January 8: 8 pm
MY FRIENDS / AMICI MIEI
(1975; 113 minutes)
Monicelli took over MY FRIENDS when its original director Pietro Germi died, and he made of it a sincere homage to the memory of an old friend and mentor. A group of old friends, now in their 50s, continue to be addicted to the idiotic pranks and cruel jokes that have always made them feel youthful and alive. Monicelli pokes pointed fun at the attempts of the middle-aged to keep mortality at bay. With Bernard Blier, Adolfo Celi, Ugo Tognazzi, Philippe Noiret, and Duilio Del Prete.
Monday, January 6: 4:15 and 9 pm
Wednesday, January 8: 2 and 6:30 pm
DEAR MICHAEL / CARO MICHELE
(1976; 108 minutes)
Best Director, Berlin Film Festival
In this Úpater la bourgeoisie adaptation of a novel by respected Russian writer Natalia Ginzburg, Monicelli subjects a middle-class family, rather hidebound in tradition, to the anarchic energy of a free spirit (delightfully incarnated by Mariangela Melato). This wild child has married the only son, and has given birth while he's off getting killed in a student demonstration. (The narrative is moved along through the letters everyone writes to Michael, who's never seen.) Now, the fate of the family's only heir is in contention: Will he grow up a conformist or an individualist like his zany mama? With Lou Castel and Delphine Seyrig.
Wednesday, January 8: 4:15 and 8:45 pm
Thursday, January 9: 2 pm
WE WANT THE COLONELS / VOGLIAMO I COLONNELLI
(1972; 100 minutes)
Klutzy would-be over-throwers of government try for one coup d'Útat after another; they are all doomed from the get-go, of course. This underrated satire explodes with irrepressible farcical elements, vulgar irreverence, and the quickstep episodic pacing of a comicstrip. The madness is aided and abetted by Ugo Tognazzi.
Thursday, January 9: 4:15 and 8:30 pm
A VERY LITTLE MAN / UN BORGHESE PICCOLO PICCOLO
(1977; 122 minutes)
Alberto Sordi is superb in this dark, tragicomic portrait of society gone mad. His son accidentally murdered by terrorists, a smalltime government official can't even wrest a coffin out of the bureaucracy. Worse, he is forced to watch helplessly as the killer slips through the hands of bumbling cops--not once, but twice. This very little man grows large with rage, turning into a single-minded executioner, as deadend crazy as the system that produced him. With Shelley Winters.
Friday, January 10: 2 and 6:30 pm
Saturday, January 11: 4 pm
LET'S HOPE IT'S A GIRL / SPERIAMO CHE SIA FEMMINA
(1985; 119 minutes)
Here, Monicelli goes after--with his usual comic audacity--gender stereotypes: the Countess (Liv Ullmann) is estranged from her husband (Philippe Noiret), so she's had to keep the family's collapsing farm going by herself, with the help of a community of women (with the exception of doddering old Uncle Gugo, daftly played by Bernard Blier). When the Count and his buddies suddenly show up, they find themselves second-class citizens in a perfectly self-sufficent matriarchy. The superb cast includes Catherine Deneuve, Giuliana De Sio, Stefania Sandrelli, et al.
Friday, January 10: 4:15 and 8:45 pm
Saturday, January 11: 6:15 pm