Mario Monicelli: Still Alive and Kicking By Sergei Lavrentiev
When discovering that the classic retrospective this year at the San Sebastian IFF would be dedicated to the works of Mario Monicelli, I was a little disappointed. Growing up as a film buff behind the Iron Curtain, I always liked to go to Donostia (the Basque name of San Sebastian) because the festival’s classical retrospectives gave me the opportunity to see films which I wasn’t able to see in the Soviet Union. Preston Sturges, Robert Wise, Ernst Lubitch, Henry King… What names! What a wonderful time I spent at San Sebastian watching dozens of their films!
Mario Monicelli was not the unknown figure for me. I saw 14 of his films during the Soviet era. These movies were shown at the Moscow IFF in the 70’s and 90’s. Sometimes a Soviet distribution company bought Monicelli’s works. The censors cut some episodes, created new dialogue during dubbing, and colorized the black and white prints… But even after all these procedures, Soviet audiences liked Monicelli’s films a lot.
Guardie e ladri (Cops and Robbers, 1951) even had a Russian remake at nineties. La Ragazza con Pistola (Girl with a pistol, 1968) under the title Shout right, Assunta! , even in black and white, was one of the hits in the Soviet Union in the early 70’s, and Romanzo Popolare (1974) was the first real erotic comedy in communist cinemas. Soviets were just crazy about it even in a cut version. But it was good taste not to take Mario Monicelli seriously. Yes, he is a nice director, making good movies, good for the box office. His name was never mentioned in discussions on Italian cinema which included Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti and Bertolucci… That’s why I was rather disappointed about the retrospective in Donostia.
However, being a film freak for so many years, I decided to watch some films. And — another discovery! In one of my FIPRESCI articles I wrote about the importance of seeing old films during film festivals in 35mm prints. Now I’m sure that it’s very important to watch all films by famous directors. Even those films which were not critically acclaimed.
Of course, Proibito (Forbidden, 1954) interests us now only to see the young Mel Ferrer and Lea Massari, the not-so-young Amedeo Nazzari as well as to enjoy the colour print from that time. But Risate di Gioia (Joyful Laughter, 1960) shows us very openly why the world loved Italian cinema. It was not only joyful, funny and totally national, but it also lacked pretentiousness. It dealt with the life of real people in fantastic situations.
The great Anna Magnani, two years before Mamma Roma, is wonderful in Risate di Gioia. Funny, naughty, charming, kind, brutal and, in a way, very simple. Like her great partner Totò.
One can’t help smiling thinking of the pair — Totò and Magnani! During the screening of Risate di Gioia the audience laughed in a way I don’t remember hearing in the last 30 years. Magnani, Totò and Aldo Fabrizi in the not so good Cinderella story Donatella (1956), Sophia Loren in La Mortadella (1971), and Mariangela Melato in Caro Michele (1976) playing their parts so naturally in Monicelli films — it’s not possible to use the word “acting” in describing their work.
Mario Monicelli made a lot of films. But even in his latest but, I hope, not last film, Rosa Del Deserto (2006), Michele Placido plays the priest absolutely in the same natural way. The main attraction of Monicelli’s work lies in an unbalance between almost unreal circumstances and 100 percent natural reactions. The actors in his films live and nothing but.
Compared to the great Italian film geniuses mentioned above, Mario Monicelli didn’t create his own film world. His cinema is like a breath of fresh air. Maybe that’s why maestro Mario is still alive and kicking.