How can you deal with dramatic subjects in humorous terms? At the end of the 1950s, Italian cinema found its own way, giving birth to a whole new genre of film.
Distinct from the desperate tones that had turned Neorealism into an international sensation, Commedia all’Italiana (“Comedy in the Italian style”) arose from the period of peace and general wealth that followed World War II. The protagonists of commedia, after years of bombs and misery, were now struggling with the challenges of their newly-acquired middle-class lives. Catholic by inertia, lazy, moderately deceptive and particularly sly, these films highlighted the vices (many) and the virtues (few) of the Italiano medio (“the average Italian”).
A whole new generation of talented actors, screenwriters and directors flourished during the time of Commedia all’Italiana. Amongst the latter, Mario Monicelli directed the forefather of the genre. A parody of caper films, I Soliti Ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street, 1958) tells the story of a group of hapless petty thieves planning to rob Rome’s major pawnbroker, the mount of piety. Their plan fails miserably, and the group ends up stealing only some pasta e ceci (“pasta and chickpeas”) from the adjoining flat.
Because none of the actors starring in the movie–including Vittorio Gassman and Marcello Mastroianni–were professional comedians, the legendary Totò, who was over 20 years their senior, was called in by the producers for an unforgettable cameo in which he teaches the rest of the group a few tricks on how to break into a safe. It’s one of the most famous scenes in Italian cinema, but it’s also an example of Italian comedy being passed on, from one generation to the next.
Monicelli observed and spoke about the impact of Commedia all’Italiana on Italian society: “More than anything else, more than literature, more than painting, more than theater, Commedia all’Italiana changed the character of Italians. How? By ridiculing all the taboos, all the vices that Italians had, the southerners in particular: cuckoldry, virginity, adultery, bragging, Catholicism, so much so that it was very opposed by the government. […] This has helped to change Italians, making them become more aware, making them known to themselves, making them laugh at themselves. It has changed many of their customs, detaching them, in a certain sense, from excessive sentimentality and taboos, and contributing to their evolution.”
Among Monicelli’s many films, La Ragazza con la Pistola (The Girl with the Pistol, 1968) was one of the first to star Monica Vitti in a comic role, a rather unusual part for the tragic muse of Michelangelo Antonioni’s existential films. Vitti plays a young woman from a small Sicilian village who must kill her former lover to restore her family’s honor. The manhunt takes her to London, where she eventually settles and is freed from her history. (Watch the movie to see how!)
Sicily and its ancestral traditions are also at the heart of two masterpieces by Pietro Germi: Divorzio all’Italiana (Divorce Italian Style, 1961)–which named the whole genre–and Sedotta e Abbandonata (Seduced and Abandoned, 1964). With bittersweet spirit, both films make fun of the code of honor of rural Sicily, where female virginity was considered an asset and bride kidnapping was commonplace.
Lina Wertmüller’s most famous film, Travolti da un Insolito Destino nell’Azzurro Mare d’Agosto (Swept Away, 1974) contrasts rural, passionate southern Italy with the bourgeois, snobby north–a trope of Italian popular culture which, although cliché, always works wonders. A wealthy, capitalist woman from Milan finds herself stranded at sea with her cabin boy, a fervent communist from Sicily. Hilarity ensues with this cross section of Italian society.
While Monicelli became the director of Commedia all’Italiana par excellence, out of the many talented actors that shone during the golden age of the genre, only one came to embody it. Through his many roles–whether as a traffic policeman or a head physician–Alberto Sordi’s characters became essential to the genre. His iconic romanaccio (speaking with a strong Roman accent), which had gotten him expelled from Milan’s drama school, was an essential part. The line “Maccarone, m’hai provocato e io ti distruggo adesso, io me te magno!” (“Maccarone, you have provoked me and now I’ll destroy you, I’m going to eat you!”)–directed to a huge plate of pasta in Un Americano a Roma (An American in Rome, 1954)–is part of the cultural heritage of every Italian.
The style of Commedia all’Italiana has deep roots in our culture. Traces of its humor can be found throughout Italy’s artistic history: in Giovanni Boccaccio’s colorful stories of The Decameron (1350-1353), in Niccolò Machiavelli’s satirical play The Mandrake (1524), in Ruzante’s comedies, and in the great tradition of Commedia dell’arte, a form of theater popular in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, known in English as “Italian comedy”.
Over the years, the social elements that assured the success of the genre faded away: in the early 1970s the country went through one of its darkest periods, marked by political terrorism and turmoil. Cinematic style followed suit, although every now and again, a film would be released to remind us how much we love to laugh about ourselves. After all, we’ve been doing it for centuries!