Thursday, October 04, 2007

Two Italian Comedies

Two very funny Italian films I saw recently:

Divorce Italian Style is a nasty black comedy and a merciless social satire exposing the sexual hypocrisies of the Italian (Sicilian?) society. Ferdinando is living an oppressive life as a scion of an aristrocratic family whose best years are already past. He is also fed up with his silly wife and her smothering and clinging love. He instead is lusting after his seventeen year old cousin Angela, played by a very beautiful Stefania Sandrelli (who was also in The Conformist), who lives next door. The only problem is that the Italian law forbids divorce and so does the catholic church. What is to be done? Well, as it turns there is a way out. He finds out there is "an unwritten law" that if a man catches his wife in flagrante delicto he can actually get away with murder with a lenient sentence because he was actually protecting his and his society's honour. (The same thing applies to a woman too but in that case leniency is comparatively harder to get.) He hatches up a plan to lure a man to his wife and soon enough finds out an ex-flame of hers who is in town, leading to some predictable and other not so predictable consequences.

The film very deservedly won an Oscar for best screenplay which is quite rare for a foreign film. Every dialogue crackles with wit and sarcasm. There is specially a scene in the courtroom in which the lawyer for the defence holds forth on the concept of honour in such a grandiloquent manner that it is to be seen to be believed (he manages to bring in Shakespeare, Crusades and history of Christianity). The film also won an Oscar nomination for Marcello Mastroianni and his performance in this film was one big surprise for me. Just a few posts back I was complaining of him being miscast in Visconti's Le Notti Bianche as a shy, awkward lonely young man and speculated that it might be because of his image of suave, sophisticated and attractive guy with too-bored-to-care attitude that he perfected in films like La Dolce Vita. Watching him in this film was a revelation. He plays the sleazy smooth-guy with hair brilliantined and smoking cigarettes through plastic holders with such relish that I was wondering if he was the same guy who played Marcello in La Dolce Vita. In fact Fellini's film itself is used as a subject of satire. In one of the key scenes of the film the whole town and even people from the neighbouring village gather in the local theatre for a screening of the film. (In an earlier scene a bishop in the church is shown to be fulminating against the film.) A man who is ogling Anita Ekberg in the classic fountain scene, after getting disapproving looks from his girlfriend, explains, "she is beautiful, but she has no soul" showing how Fellini's film was actually received in his own country and how his aims and his ideas fell flat on common people. Rest of the supporting cast is also great and so is the music score (which was nominated for an Oscar too.) A great comedy classic, not to be missed.


Big Deal on Madonna Street is a hilarious riff on the classic caper films like The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi, The Killing and others. Some familiarity with these films is required to appreciate the humour of the film. The basic behind all these films is the same. A bunch of down on luck criminals led by a brilliant mastermind embark upon a crime with which they plan to alter their course of life forever. The meticulousness and intelligence with which they plan the heist is designed to make one think that nothing can go wrong but a malevolent fate is always scheming against them and they can't resist or go back even if they know they are headed to their sure doom. The solemnity of such films makes for an easy parody and satire, as this film indeed shows. As Bruce Eder says in this essay, "If the action in Monicelli’s film is governed by a personified deity, it’s not the vengeful, dark God of American film noir, but a cheerful, whimsical God who smiles and appreciates a good practical joke." It also riffs on many neo-realist films dealing with the petty criminals and replaces their pessimistic social critique with good humoured social and character observation. So in this case we have a petty criminal, played again by Mastroianni (actually a cameraless photographer), who is taking care of his baby and whose wife is in jail for selling smuggled cigarettes. There is a boxer character too, staple of quite a few noir films. Every one of them sees working for money as something below his dignity. In the end when two of them find themselves mistaken for workers they can't believe it. "Do I look like someone who works for a living?" he asks. That's the problem of lumpen proletariat, the film seems to be saying! Very funny overall. My only gripe with the film was that Claudia Cardinale was completely wasted in a two-bit role. She is an actress of middling talents but she looks really hot in the few scenes she has in the film. If she had more scenes it could have saved me some time and effort spent in pausing and rewinding. Still a wonderfully entertaining film.


KUBLA KHAN said...

I can see that you have been busy watching movies lately. i dont have a decent library nearby, so my movie lust remains high.
I really w'd love to hear from you when you read the savage detectives.
how good is Musil's Torless book?
i HAVE only read his TMWQ, but sometime ago.

Alok said...

Torless is a rather miniaturized version of MwQ. Similar ideas but much shorter and a little more conventional in style and narration. Good book for beginners but for those who have already been into his mega-novel, not really necessary.

I am busy reading the Polish novel Ferdydurke these days. Definitely will pick up Savage Detectives sometime soon. I am a little wary because of its thickness and weight. Though this ferdydurke book is quite difficult too. It comes highly recommended from Susan Sontag though.

puccinio said...

Ah excellent examples...I never got around to seeing ''Big Deal...'' so avoid talking about it(I didn't rad your bit about it) to me, don't like spoilers.

''Divorzio All'Italiana'' is one of my favourite films. And you know I didn't know until now the film won an Oscar for Screenplay(I stopped caring for those things a long time ago) but it's dialogue is great especially that bit with the priest in the pulpit...''We believe in the freedom of the we believe in democracy...Christianity also believes in we favour Christian democracy.'' It cracks me up every time since it basically satirizes every party that calls itself Christian Democractic.

And Mastroianni's bit when he introduces that painter beau for his wife into his house...that guy rips straight into his bourgeois ancestry and he says, ''My family were avid art collectors, avid painters...just avid.''

Pietro Germi is one of the great truly underrated directors of Italy. He began as an ex-NeoRealist and then tried his hand with comedy and proved to be a genius with it. They call him the Italian Preston Sturges for the way he rips into Middle Class life and his political satire. And also the way he shows romantic relationships.

Mastroianni actually took the role because he was tired of his image as a Latin lover, ''La Dolce Vita'' made him into a worldwide celebrity and he became a jetsetter but didn't want to take roles as a shallow skirt-chaser so part of the reason he made the film was an attempt(successful) at self-parody.

And another thing is that although the film is extremely well-written, it's also brilliantly composed and visually expressed. Especially the scenes in his mini-office and the scene where he makes love to his cousin in the garden. With comedic films with the possible exception of those in colour, people don't focus that much on the visual qualities as they do for others.

puccinio said...

You know if you want more comedies of that sort you can check out Ealing Comedies...British Cinema's finest comedy movies...especially the four films starring Alec Guinness - ''The Ladykillers'',
''The Lavender Hill Mob'', ''The Man In The White Suit'' and the greatest of all black comedies(save for Chaplin's ''Monsieur Verdoux'') ''Kind Hearts and Coronets''.

In America, Preston Sturges was the king of that kind of satire - especially ''The Lady Eve'', ''The Palm Beach Story'', ''Sullivan's Travels'', ''Unfaithfully Yours!'' and the king of all anti-military farces - ''Hail The Conquering Hero!''. He also pulled of one of the greatest swindles in film history by making ''The Miracle of Morgan's Creek''.

Alok said...

Mastroianni was absolutely fantastic. In fact the whole sequence with La Dolce Vita movie screening was brilliant. My opinion of him (and La Dolce Vita too actually) certainly changed after watching this film.

Remember that line about the christian democratic the communist party is made fun of too. In the opening sequence people are dancing at a communist party meeting and the narration says "meanwhile the progress of the working class continued unabated" or something like that. In another scene later in the film the representative of the Communist party asks for "a democratic opinion" from the people about the wife who eloped (after saying how much "our chinese brothers" have achieved in the field of women's emancipation).. everybody screams, "Whore!" I was reading that this film had a major influence in reforming a lot of gender related laws in Italy, all relics from the fascist period and about which feminist and progressive groups were agitating for long but in vain.

I agree it is a very interesting film in technical and visual sense too. I was particularly impressed by the way it uses point-of-view narration. There are imaginary monologues by the lawyer for example (what a riot he is!) in the voice-over as Ferdinando contemplates various situations, it is marvelous.

I have seen Kind Hearts.. and Ladykillers. I love them both, specially the former. Alec Guiness was another genius of acting. Peter Sellers too. I will check out the other films you have mentioned. Preston Sturges is a completely unexplored territory too. Thanks for all the names. Will definitely look out for them soon.