Italian comedy: how it was born, the directors and 18 titles not to be missed

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The Italian comedy begins with I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street) in 1958, and with Divorzio all’italiana Pietro Germi’sAmong the many Italian comedies, some of the cinematic masterpieces of all time.

More than a particular genre, the term indicates a period (from the late 1950s to the early 1970s) in which the Italian film industry was creating hit comedies, with some usual traits such as satire of costumes, farcical and grotesque overtones, a solid focus on “hot” social issues related to sex, separation, birth control, marriage of the clergy, economic momentum of the nation and its many effects, the religious impact as well as a dominant bourgeois order, often characterized by a notable background of unhappiness and social dissatisfaction. Mario Monicelli was one of the best known film directors of Italian comedy.

italian-comedy

The stories of the Italian Comedy

As Monicelli said, the Italian Comedy is something truly linked to Italian popular culture, it is a tangle of stories linked to poverty in Italy after the end of the Second World War. In every type of storyline in films of this genre, there is a gang of thieves, outlaws, shrewd and sometimes petty and opportunistic individuals who want to make ends meet. However, everyone has their own problems, attributable to ignorance, incompetence, inadequate means, unrequited love as well as numerous other obstacles.

The whole story revolves around these characters and invite the public to have a precise and clear vision of the problems of the Italians of that period, as well as of the sadness and joy of the whole of Italy. By the end of the story, the group of cheaters generally find themselves deceived and crushed economically and emotionally worse than before. Whoever appears best in the tale is always the most powerful, whether in the political arena or in some other social context. What makes the audience laugh are the actions of the characters throughout the preparation of their plans.

The element of despair is significantly present in all the tales of Italian comedy, not only the mockery of shrewd people trying to increase their wealth, but also a bitter irony as well as a tragic fate of the protagonists. 

Just think of the tragic end of the film Il sorpasso (Dino Risi) or the end of the film I soliti ignoti in which the thieves stopped working on their own, losing everything they had. A further important feature of this type of comedy is the sensation, although the social status of the individuals who occupy the stories is incredibly precarious, the main characters have actually shown a great will to live, to enjoy, to desire. What breaks this feeling is a grotesque Italian comedy, which immediately attracts the viewer. 

italian-comedy

In the sixties and seventies such stories merge with satire. Even in these stories, as in Signore e Signori buonanotte (1976), the ability to materialize typically Italian satirical scenes is incredibly biting. The main characters are targeted by powerful characters, incredibly rude, negative, sensual, linked to the masks of the Commedia dell’arte.

The Italian comedy ceased to exist in the 1980s, a time when the primary actors had aged, changed from a comic category focused more on the offensive and repulsive side of the characters, which followed extremely American models. With the Americanized style of comedy in Italy, the Italian Comedy genre has disappeared. 

The last film that still strongly reflects the characters of the Italian comedy is Il marchese del Grillo, directed by Mario Monicelli (1981). Alberto Sordi plays a spoiled wealthy Marquis of Rome. He makes endless jokes about the people, as if they were toys in his living room. His joker cynicism does not diminish also from the power of Pope Pius VII. This film still reflects very well the character of the typical joker man of the sixties, who only cares about himself and also what he has, does not take care of others as well as those most in need. The film is based on a true story.

Actors of the Italian comedy

italian-comedy

Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, Alberto Sordi and Nino Manfredi were the five protagonists of the Italian comedy in the 60s and 70s, followed by others such as Stefania Sandrelli, Monica Vitti, Giancarlo Giannini, Mariangela Honeydew, Catherine Spaak; or stars like Enrico Maria Salerno, Claudia Cardinale.

Directors of the Italian comedy

In 1961 Dino Risi directs Il sorpasso, currently a cult film, then A difficult life, The monsters, In the name of the Italian people and Profumo di donna.

Works of Mario Monicelli include The Great War, The Comrades (Comrades), The Brancaleone Army, We Want the Colonels, Popular Novel (Come Home and Meet My Wife) and Amici My.

Various other notable filmmakers in the category were Pasquale Festa Campanile, Ettore Scola, Luigi Comencini, Steno, Antonio Pietrangeli, Nanni Loy and Lina Wertmüller, and the scriptwriters Age & Scarpelli, Leo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Rodolfo Sonego, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, as well as Sergio Amidei.

The Italian comedy: the movies that you absolutely cannot miss

Here is a selection of 17 films of the Italian comedy, some real masterpieces, over a period of 30 years.

Guards and Thieves also known as Cops and Thieves (1951)

It’s a comedy from start to finish with only the last 10 minutes of drama. Once again, the film manipulates the realism of contemporary Italy with a solid and even detailed characterization of its characters. Directed by the duo Monicelli and Steno, it is considered among the best interpretations of Totò. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also with a terrific representation of Italy and Italians. 

Ferdinando Esposito, played by Totò, is a scammer who, with his companion Amilcare, loves to carry out his scams on tourists who visit the Roman Forum. After robbing an American of $ 50, he is chased by a policeman, Lorenzo, who allows him to escape. In order not to lose his job, Lorenzo has to capture him again.

An American in Rome (1954)

This film, set in the 1950s, stars Alberto Sordi as Nando, a Roman boy who remains in close contact with the United States and also with his lifestyle. Nando’s dream consists in moving to the USA, but in the meantime he remains in Italy where he “imports” American ways of being and also American traditions. The comic side of the film lies in Nando’s effort to copy ordinary American in Italy, producing some truly hilarious scenes that made many people cry and laugh. 

Big Deal in Madonna Street (1958)

This comic work of art directed by Mario Monicelli is usually referred to as the beginning of the Italian comedy. The strength of the film is the characters. “I Soliti Ignoti” is a “satire” based on the French opera “Rififi”, published years earlier. “Rififi” focuses on the historic and epic 30-minute break-in scene. Although I soliti ignoti was a movie full of stars, most of the actors were not yet known in the cinema; are the cases of Claudia Cardinale, Marcello Mastroianni and Vittorio Gassman, who later became iconic and legendary actors of Italian cinema.

Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto) is a gangster who was arrested after trying to steal a car. While in prison, he devises a strategy that would surely make him rich for the rest of his life, so he calls his lawyer and also his wife to ask them to call someone who would confess to the car theft.

That person is Peppe (Vittorio Gassman), who approves of taking the blame for the crime he didn’t commit. Instead of being released, they both remain in jail. Understanding the strategy, Peppe deceives Cosimo by making him tell his plan. After Peppe’s release, he joins Cosimo’s gang in order to execute the plan.

The Great War (1959)

The Great War was comedy in its most sophisticated form. His anti-heroic stance towards the Italian exploits of the First World War – which the establishment wanted to either proclaim or, better still, not review at all – inspired the film. However, it ended up being popular and was exceptionally significant, sharing the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion with Rossellini’s General Della Rovere.

Vittorio Gassman and Alberto Sordi are at their best as two soldiers whose only goal is to resist. Their efforts to avoid a fate of fear are extraordinarily entertaining, given the circumstances – because Monicelli and the screenwriters Age and Scarpelli do well to create an environment in which the debacle of war is clearly evoked – but the final irony of their fate is heartbreaking.

Love and theft (1960)

Among the most significant roles of Vittorio Gassman, who plays Gerardo, a man who claims to be a star when in reality he is a scammer and a thief who earns his living by cheating others. It is another great film by Dino Risi, released in 1960, which has become a reference point for Italian comedy of the 1960s, one of the greatest collaborations of Risi and Gassman.

Although in comparison, “Il Sorpasso”, for example, is a richer and more intricate film, “Il Mattatore” includes a richer humor component that makes it a film not to be missed. Extremely supported by the impressive performance of its lead actor, Vittorio Gassman, this film had a significant influence on Italian comedies.

Divorce Italian style (1961)

Oscar winner, Pietro Germi’s film tells an excellent story with very clever funny moments. The film is full of truly phenomenal camera movements as well as extraordinary direction by Germi and an excellent interpretation by Marcello Mastroianni.

Mastroianni plays Ferdinando Cefalù, a man who is bored with his wife, so much so that he wants to kill her. He wishes to marry Angela, an innocent girl who returns his love. Regardless of being an aristocrat, Ferdinand only desires Angela and her youth and develops a plan to kill his wife.

Convinced that his strategy will surely work, he begins to imagine the plan and how it will benefit him; everything is optimistic enough for him. Ferdinand’s madness and eccentricity are often represented by body contractions that Mastroianni beautifully performs throughout the film.

Despite being released in 1961, the film is quite different from the comedies typically made at the time. His best moments are in the role of Mastroianni and in the diabolical project of his character.

A difficult life (1961)

The film tells the story of Italian national politics from 1944 to 1960, from the difficulties of the Second World War to the end of Fascism and the birth of the Italian Republic to the rise of the Italian Communist Party. It follows the life of Silvio, who strongly believes that his political activism should be rewarded but in the end realizes that Italy has changed and must transform itself with it.

In 1944 the Roman student Silvio Magnozzi (Alberto Sordi), is 2nd lieutenant of the Royal Army in service at Lake Como. After the Italian abandonment of 8 September 1943, Silvio joined a regional partisan group to continue fighting the Nazis who still live in the Italian countryside. Trying to find a safe place to stay, he is sent to a hotel. He is found by a German soldier who intends to kill him on the spot. Elena (Lea Massari), the daughter of the hotelier, saves his life by killing the German with an iron. She accompanies him to a refuge: the mill owned by her deceased grandparents. For three months, he and Elena live together. At the end of that period Silvio leaves without even saying goodbye and joins the partisans.

The Easy Life (1962)

It is one of the best examples of Italian comedy as it reveals the modern Italy of the 1960s with financial growth and also the surge of “nouveau-riche” society, mainly thanks to a rapidly growing market. The duo Gassman and Jean-Louis Trintignant make this set one of the most magical. The distinctions of individuality of both characters, which culminate in a harrowing fate rather unwanted by the comedy’s target audience, make “Il Sorpasso” one of the most fascinating and unusual films.

Bruno Cortona is a Don Juan, fanatic of the easy life and passionate about the Italian Dolce Vita, who after having obtained the support of Roberto Mariani, shy and shy law practitioner who needs to spend the day to study, invites him to spend the day with him on a road trip. A little skeptical, Roberto accepts this unusual request and begins the curious journey across the country.

The duo works perfectly and even the distinction of the characters really radiates in a film that leads us to understand the Italy of the 1960s. Despite their seemingly inevitable differences and conflicts, they end up loving each other.

It seems that Roberto likes Bruno more than he likes Bruno. The difference in individuality is also an allegory and a description of the “new life” that was developing in Italy at that time.

Seduced and abandoned (1964)

Sedotta e Abbandonata is an Italian comedy with all the appropriate elements. Satire, strong language and sexual allusions are the elements of the jewel of the Italian comedy. It is a very dense story, which thickens as the story progresses. Also, the characters change a lot from the start, especially one of the characters, Agnes. She is the sister of Matilde, engaged to Peppino, seen by the ladies as a handsome man, and also the daughter of Don Vincenzo.

One day, while everyone is asleep, Peppino seduces the innocent Agnes, who cannot resist his charm and has always had a crush on him. They sleep together and a story begins with many hilarious developments.

Contrary to some of the films listed here, “Sedotta e Abbandonata” is entirely comical, with the necessary dramatic moments like any Italian comedy does. It is definitely a arthouse films not to be missed, especially if you love the nuances and intelligence of Pietro Germi’s stories.

Among the miracles (1971)

The age-old problem of an Italian boy between paganism and Catholicism is the theme of this truly personal film written and directed by Nino Manfredi, who is also the protagonist. Manfredi plays Parisi Benedetto, forty and still a virgin who lived a bewildered youth in which a primordial trauma made him turn to his patron saint, a minor martyr named Eusebius.

But his religious faith begins to fade and he is expelled for lasciviousness. As a traveling salesman of a lingerie line, still absurdly clinging to his chastity, he meets an atheist, Lionel Stander, who pulls him out of his convictions and introduces him to his daughter (Delia Boccardo) who becomes his first true mature bond. “A curse helps you to live, a prayer helps you to die”, his gruff old advisor tells him; but the proverb turns out to be just as true when the cynic accepts the last ceremonies, sending Benedict back to the starting point.

La Grande Bouffe (1973)

La Grande Bouffe by Marco Ferreri is an almost “monstrous” film that tells of excesses and decadence. 4 good friends unite in a castle with the specific idea of ​​eating to death. Gathering excessively, they hold a spectacular banquet in the villa, participating in an orgy of sex and consumption. Depraved and perhaps outrageous, the cult film is one of those films not to be missed.

Bread and chocolate (1973)

In the 1970s, Italy’s post-war economic boom had effectively collapsed in the “lead years”. Unemployed Italians headed north in search of work and a better life. Nino Garofalo (Nino Manfredi) goes to Switzerland to work. As the opening credits roll, we see him sitting against a tree in an idyllic Swiss park as locals enjoy alfresco dining and string orchestra music. Nino unwraps a sandwich and eats it making a noise. Immediately, the songs stop. People watch. It’s a preview of the troubles that await him, the strange man in a land of blond children and wealth. 

We’ve seen this kind of geek in a funny way before – the immigrant from Charlie Chaplin, for example – but Manfredi’s character is definitely Italian. What might be normal in Rome or Naples is treated here as asocial, even criminal, behavior. He is detained for peeing in public and booing in a sports bar when cheering for an Italian team. The dark vein of Italian comedy shows up in the scene where he runs into a family of compatriots living in a chicken coop. The feathers fly and we can laugh, however we also really feel the sadness and pity.

We Loved Each Other So Much (1974)

Masterpiece by Ettore Scola, this cult comedy follows 3 friends over the course of 30 years. Gianni, Marco and Nicola meet for the first time as young optimists leading Italy’s battle for liberation from fascism. After the war, they leave, with the intention of making their dreams come true. In the decades that follow, their lives intersect, reviewing the impact and adaptation not only of their dreams and failures, but of those of Italy in general.

Swept Away (1974)

The battle of the sexes ends up being a concern of class conflict in this film by Lina Wertmüller. Right here the duties of power and opportunity are reversed. Mariangela Melato plays the part of a rich lady who dominates her inferiors.

On board his private yacht, in addition to harassing his secretary (Giancarlo Giannini who plays a southern “primitive”), he beats and harasses him. Melato grumbles about the Communists with his good friends or tans half-naked on the deck while Giannini sees through the half-open hatch in a steaming silence. Yet when a tornado crashes them on a desert island, it’s time for revenge, time for the manly man to dominate. Like the previous satires of Wertmüller (The Seduction of Mimì / Mimi metallugico woundito nell’onore, 1971; Love and Anarchy / Film of love and anarchy, 1972; All Screwed Up / Everything in place and nothing in order, 1973) , the film explores social mores linked to sex.

Fantozzi (1975)

Fantozzi’s films are some of the most important Italian comedy films ever and are actually loaded with idioms and words that are currently part of the Italian language. They tell the story of Ugo Fantozzi, an incredibly unfortunate Italian employee, who acts as a framework for the customs and habits of the Italian petty bourgeoisie. Massive cult scenes: Fantozzi and his partner Filini playing tennis, Fantozzi jumping off the balcony to catch the bus and get to the office on time, the projection of the battleship Potemkin…

My friends (1975)

It is another of Monicelli’s treasures that cannot be overlooked. “Amici My” is a story of 4 friends, who later in the film end up being 5 friends, who are still old teenagers trying to pass the time. All of them, or almost all of them, are well positioned in life, love to prank other people and the bigger the pranks, the better. They call themselves gypsies and are negligent and unpredictable, leaving their individual problems behind.

My friends deviates from the films generally made up to that point. All scenes are quickly transformed into humor and comedy. Likewise, the reunion of such renowned actors places the film in a state of grace, directed by the masterful hands of Monicelli and his wonderful vision. One of the most significant films of Italian comedy.

Ugly, Dirty and Bad (1976)

It is an extraordinary film, not only for its humorous moments, but also for its grotesque style with powerful content and strong language. It is often referred to as a grotesque comedy as it departs from the dramatic comedies that were still in the process of being launched. Like Fantozzi, this one too came out in the second half of the 1970s, developing a new kind of Italian comedy, building a plot with comic elements full of meaning.

It is, by far, Nino Manfredi’s toughest role, where he plays a grotesque and rude one-eyed man. Giacinto lives with all his children, grandchildren, their partners and every kind of “family” you can remember, in a tiny hut with more than 10 people crammed inside. After losing his eye, his insurance offered him a large sum, which he refuses to share with the rest of the “family” by keeping it hidden. 

“Ugly, Dirty and Bad” makes use of a lot of profanity and sex-related scenes. His daughters are defined by himself as prostitutes, just as his children are called pigs, thieves and murderers who just want to steal his money. The film is a masterpiece that changed the panorama of Italian comedy. 

The Marquis of Grillo (1981)

Played by Alberto Sordi, this film is set in nineteenth-century Rome and tells the story of Onofrio del Grillo, a marquis who spends his days in complete idleness and enjoys playing pranks on the population.

His life changes when he meets Gasperino, a poor man who looks strikingly like him, giving him the chance to play even more imaginative jokes. Known scene: the marquis is in the midst of a group of common people and says: “sorry, but I know ‘you and I are not a shit” (sorry but I am just as you are nothing).

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