Mario Monicelli: the movies to watch by the master of Italian comedy

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Mario Monicelli was born in Rome on May 16, 1915. Italian writer, director and screenwriter, Monicelli was among the most famous Italian directors. Together with Dino Risi and Luigi Comencini, one of the main directors of the Italian comedy, which helped to make itself known abroad with films such as Cops and Robbers, Big Deal on Madonna Street, The Great War, The Incredible Army of Brancaleone and My Friends.

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Six-time Oscar nominee (twice for original screenplay, four times for best international film) and winner of numerous film awards. In 1991 he received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice International Film Festival.


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Mario Monicelli’s youth

Mario Monicelli was born in Rome on May 16, 1915 into a family from Ostiglia. His father, Tomaso Monicelli, was a journalist, director of the Resto del Carlino as well as of Avanti! , theater critic and playwright. Monicelli was also linked to the Mondadori family: his father’s sister, in fact, was the partner of Arnoldo Mondadori and Monicelli himself claims to have been a friend of Alberto and Giorgio Mondadori.

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Monicelli spent his youth in Rome, then moved with his family to Viareggio. He attended the gymnasium and two years of high school in Prato, at the Cicognini National Boarding School. He then settled in Milan, where he finished his 3rd high school and also began university studies. In Milan Monicelli frequented Riccardo Freda, Remo Cantoni, Alberto Lattuada, Alberto Mondadori and Vittorio Sereni; together they started, with the support of the Mondadori publisher, the newspaper Camminare, in which Monicelli dealt with film reviews. Monicelli told exactly how, in his criticisms, he was extremely ruthless on Italian cinema, while he adored the French and American films. Perhaps he was doing it for a veiled form of anti-fascism.

Later, Monicelli returned to Tuscany, where he completed his university research, graduating from the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy of the University of Pisa. Intrigued by the world of celluloid. In 1934 he made his “very first cinematographic experiment”, or the short film Revealing heart, inspired by the homonymous work by Edgar Allan Poe, together with Alberto Mondadori and Alberto Lattuada, with the latter in the role of set designer. The film was branded as an example of “paranoid cinema”.


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Mario Monicelli’s beginnings in cinema

Help Alberto Mondadori to make his first feature film, I Ragazzi della via Pal (1935), based on the Hungarian novel by Ferenc Molnár, also made as part of the Milanese Cineguf. The film was sent to the Venice International Film Festival, wins the first prize and gives the opportunity to make a professional film. Monicelli was thus able to avoid the numerous stages of specialist training and was sent, together with Mondadori, to work in the production of Gustav Machatý Ballerine, which took place in Tirrenia.

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He approaches the world of cinema thanks to the relationship with Giacomo Forzano, founder of the Pisorno film studios in Tirrenia, a mix of the names of the cities of Pisa and Livorno, which Mussolini intended to create. In recent years that certain Tuscan spirit has taken shape in Monicelli which will be decisive for the cinematographic poetics of the director’s comedies: many of my Amici’s jokes are episodes that are actually part of his youth.

Immediately afterwards Monicelli found work, again as an assistant, in Augusto Genina The white squadron. Later he will play the same role of assistant in several films, including Corrado D’Errico of the Castiglioni brothers; on the set he met Giacomo Gentilomo, with whom he made 2 films, La granduchessa si entertain and Cortocircuito, in which he formally held the position of assistant director as well as co-screenwriter for the first time.

Under the pseudonym of Michele Badiek, in 1937, he directed the amateur film Pioggia d’estate. The film, in which Monicelli was appointed director and screenwriter, saw the participation of his family, friends and fellow citizens. It was an important experience for his training where he learned to “write for the cinema, to shoot, to direct the actors, and to understand that what he organized every day did not correspond at all to concrete reality. In the meantime he was also assistant to the Spanish actress María Mercader, fiancée of Vittorio De Sica. Monicelli was sent the following year to Naples to leave for the war in Africa. He managed to avoid boarding until on 8 September he took off his uniform and fled to Rome, where continued to hide in the following months.

In the semi-autobiographical work L’arte della comedia, Monicelli says he continued to be in the army from 1940 to 1943, trying to prevent his transfer, fearing being sent first to Russia and then to Africa, until the military retreated, at which point he left for Rome. He continued to hide until the summer of 1944. In Rome he often visited the Osteria Fratelli Menghi, a well-known meeting point for painters, directors, screenwriters, writers and poets between the forties and seventies.

Among the occasions that marked his life, one was undoubtedly the suicide of his father, Tomaso Monicelli, popular chronicler and anti-fascist writer, which took place in 1946. Of this he said: “I understood his gesture. He was unjustly cut off from his work, even after the war was over, and he felt he had absolutely nothing left to do here. If life stops being dignified it’s not worth it, life isn’t always worth living .. I found myself my father’s body. Around 6 in the morning I heard a gunshot, I got up and opened the bathroom door. Among other things, an extremely small bathroom. “

The first films of Mario Monicelli

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In 1945 Monicelli is assistant to Pietro Germi for the film Il testimone. In The Art of Comedy Monicelli says that a deep bond had been established between him and Germi, he specified: “I think I am one of the few true friends with whom he had confidence.” he told of two epi firm. When Germi entered a period of crisis after the death of his wife, he called Monicelli to direct the film he was preparing (Signore & Signori, 1966), informing him that he could no longer direct it; Monicelli liked it a lot, but he refused it and pushed Germi to make his own film. The other episode was when Germi, unable to make the film Amici My due to illness, called Monicelli to replace it.

In 1946 Monicelli was chosen, together with Steno, by Riccardo Freda for the screenplay of the film Black Eagle. The film was very successful and the Monicelli-Steno couple were called to create the lines for the film Come persi la guerra by Carlo Borghesio, produced by Luigi Rovere; from that film Monicelli and Steno signed a series of film scripts. The collaboration with Steno, which will last until 1953, will surely create some of the most fascinating post-war films.


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Cops and Robbers

Among these is Cops and Robbers (1951) with Totò, a film that won the prize for best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival. It was produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti and played by Totò and Aldo Fabrizi. The film, which is part of the existing neorealist current, is one of the most vital works born from the creative collaboration between the directors Monicelli and Steno, as well as among the best films with Totò.

Ferdinando Esposito is a petty scammer who tries to support his family members with his scams. With his partner, Amilcare makes believe that he has found an old coin in the Roman Forum and deceives Mr. Locuzzo, an American traveler who, unfortunately for Esposito, is the head of state of an American charity committee. During a diffusion of some gift packages in which Esposito also participates, Mr. Locuzzo identifies him and reports him.

In L’arte della commedia Monicelli specifies that the collaboration with Steno was interrupted during the making of the films Le infedeli and Totò e le donne. Both films had to be scripted and directed by Steno and Monicelli jointly, yet in reality Monicelli only dealt with The Infidels due to the fact that he was tired of making only comedy films; Steno instead took care of Totò and women. Monicelli was a screenwriter together with Federico Fellini, Pietro Germi: In the name of the law (written with Pinelli, Germi and Giuseppe Mangione).

Mario Monicelli’s masterpieces

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In Mario Monicelli’s filmography, between ups and downs, there are certainly some cinematographic masterpieces internationally recognizedMaster above all in the genre of comedy, Monicelli however reaches his artistic peak with a dramatic and tragic film, even if still endowed with the elements of the Italian comedy: Un borghese piccolo piccolo. At the same level are his other films such as A Difficult Life and others. Let’s see which ones.

Fathers and sons

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In 1957 Monicelli won the award for best director at the Berlin International Film Festival with Fathers and sons. 4 families and their troubles, united by a common thread: the ties with a member of a fifth family, Ines Santarelli, a nurse who meets them for professional purposes or for kinship. The widower Vincenzo Corallo is the owner of a well-established tailor’s shop at the service of the great Roman bourgeoisie, together with his son Carlo. The second child Marcella, robbed during the growth of the affection of her mother who died prematurely, finds herself having to manage two fathers, the current one and her older brother, who little or nothing understand her adolescent difficulties and her first love, a boy a little ‘bigger than her.

Big Deal on Madonna Street

Considered the “reference point” of his filmography was Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), a film that started the “Italian comedy” genre. The usual unknowns, of which Monicelli was a screenwriter together with Age and Scarpelli and Suso Cecchi D’Amico, overturned for the first time the dialectic of the guards and thieves with which Monicelli himself had created the representation of the relationship between authority and freedom, between justice feint and real survival of the humblest. With Big Deal on Madonna Street Monicelli consequently abandoned the antagonistic dialectic between policemen and lawbreakers, representing only the mild, disconcerting side of a group of potential thieves doomed to failure.

Cosimo and the old “Capannelle”, 2 Roman thieves, try to steal a vehicle but are caught by the policemen: the first is arrested while the old man manages to escape. Held in the Regina Coeli prison, Cosimo obtains from a prisoner the idea for an easy-to-achieve coup at the Monte di Pietà; he therefore advises Capannelle to discover a lamb, a criminal dialect term to suggest someone who, for one accusation, takes punishment in place of another.

The Great War

The following year it was the turn of The Great War (1959), which won the Leone d’Oro ex aequo with Roberto Rossellini with General Della Rovere and obtained an Oscar nomination for best foreign language film. The Great War, far from the timeless stereotypes of comedy, passes from one extreme of the tragicomic register to various others, addressing a painful and complex subject like the First World War, and is also embellished by the memorable interpretations of Alberto Sordi and Vittorio Gassman.

The Roman Oreste Jacovacci and the Milanese Giovanni Busacca meet during the call to arms. Both find themselves at the front: after Giovanni’s initial anger, they end up offering each other consolation and being friends. Of totally different personalities, they are united by the need to avoid any risk in order to come out of the war unscathed. After experiencing countless surprises during trainings, battles and the rare moments of leave, they are part of the defeat of Caporetto and are employed as couriers, a very dangerous job.

The Organizer

Monicelli was in 1963 the author of the film The Organizer, which obtained the 2nd Oscar nomination, the one for the best screenplay. The Organizer, a film on the background of trade unionism and workers, is little known to the public but highly appreciated by film critics (with Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori and Annie Girardot).

Turin, late 19th century. In a fabric manufacturing plant, yet another serious accident pushes workers to demand better working conditions. When their request to minimize working hours from fourteen to thirteen is completely ignored, they decide to make a demonstration gesture, such as the end-of-shift siren one hour early, which however carries a penalty for all.

Totò and Carolina

4 years later Monicelli reverses the roles: in Totò and Carolina (1955) Totò is no longer a policeman but a thief, and the censorship of the time did not take well the irony on the police: the film often had heavy cuts, just as, although nowadays the original duplicate has actually been recovered, it remains to be transmitted in the censored and polluted version by a crazy title imposed by the censors of the time, derogatory towards Totò.

During a police raid on Villa Borghese, representative Antonio Caccavallo, a widower with a dependent son and father, arrested Carolina along with numerous prostututes. In fact, the girl just ran away from home because she was pregnant. Caccavallo had found it near the place of the roundup and had taken the initiative. The policeman is thus obliged by the Commissioner to bring Carolina back to her country of origin and to return her to her loved ones, who will be scandalized by her unexpected pregnancy.

The girl with the pistol

Among other notable films worthy of mention The girl with the pistol (1968), third Oscar nomination.

Assunta Patané, a young Sicilian secretly in love with Vincenzo Macaluso, is kidnapped and also taken to a farm, where they both spend a night of love. The following morning, the man flees to Scotland to avoid marriage. Disgraced, the woman is forced to try to find him to find a remedy for social shame. Arriving in the United Kingdom, Vincenzo learns of his arrival and runs away. In addition to chasing him, the girl is forced to do numerous jobs to support herself.

Come Home and Meet My Wife

Giulio Basletti is a Milanese metalworker, bachelor, passionate trade union activist and also Milanese. He sees Vincenzina again after 17 years, the daughter of a colleague he met in the Avellino area and of whom he was godfather at Baptism, with whom he soon fell in love and married her, giving birth to a child. Following a clash with the police during a demonstration in the square, the representative Giovanni Pizzullo of the “Celere” division is hit by an artifact. Having determined the culprit in Salvatore Armetta, a friend of Giulio, most likely he will go to his house in an attempt to detain him, discovering the opposition of all the neighbors and, above all, of Giulio who protects his friend with his punctual dialectic . Some time later, Armetta meets Giovanni once again, who in the meantime has even forgotten what happened, and thanks to their typical football passion they end up becoming friends.

My friends

The film was directed by Pietro Germi, who had no chance to make it due to an illness. The opening credits of the film, in fact, paid homage to the screenwriter with the words “a film by Pietro Germi” and shortly after the writing “directed by Mario Monicelli” appeared.

As in numerous other Monicelli films, Amici’s main theme is friendship, seen from a rather bitter point of view. It tells the story of four good middle-aged friends in Florence who still organize jokes together (called gypsy, “gypsy rascal”) in a continuous attempt to extend their childhood years throughout their adult life.

Count Mascetti (Ugo Tognazzi) is a poor man who has no means to support his family, but nevertheless does not give up the pleasures of a noble life. Perozzi (Philippe Noiret) is a journalist tormented by the incessant disapproval of his wife and child. Melandri (Gastone Moschin) is a designer for the conservation of the monuments of the city of Florence, whose main goal is to find the right woman. Necchi (Duilio Del Prete) is the owner of a bar and a billiard room where friends usually organize their gypsies.

Dear Michele

Dear Michele earned Monicelli the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1976. Michele is 23 years old in 1970. The story of him, that of some family members and also of several colleagues, is told by the letters that his mother, brother and even a former lover send him to the numerous addresses where the boy lives over the months. Michele is a boy appreciated by his father and little by his mother, who has always considered him inconclusive, even if, as she herself confesses, she doesn’t really know him.

Episode films

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In the 1960s Monicelli also devoted himself to anecdotal films: Boccaccio ’70 (1962), Alta infidelity (1964) and Capriccio all’italiana (1968), although the episode he directed in Boccaccio ’70 was cut from producer Carlo Ponti, sparking the protest of the Italian directors who decided to boycott the Cannes Film Festival of 1962, which should have been inaugurated by this film.

The Incredible Army of Brancaleone

In The Incredible Army of Brancaleone (1966) Monicelli presents a medieval tragicomic tale. The film is selected at the Cannes Film Festival.

11th century. During the incursion of an army of Teutonic barbarians into a city in central Italy, a boy named Taccone, the squire Mangoldo and the robust Pecoro come into possession of a parchment, written by Otto I the Great, snatching it from a knight. The Jewish notary Zefirino Abacuc, who always carries a trunk with him, checks the paper which decides, to its rightful owner, the lordship of the fief of Aurocastro in Puglia as well as the oath to free this fief from the “black danger that comes from the sea”. The four set out in search of a knight to guide them in the enterprise.

We want the colonels

In 1973 the film We want the colonels was selected at the Cannes Film Festival.

Milan: an explosive device collapses the Madonnina del Duomo in Milan, causing a wave of indignation throughout the nation as well as abroad. The assault was organized by conservative extremists because of the left, but the Hon. Giuseppe Tritoni, who belongs to the conspiracy, ends to break with its political party. The “Great Right” actually remains the search for a project of insertion into the system, realizing itself as the celebration that desires “freedom in order and also order in freedom”.

An Average Little Man

The following film, shot in the height of the lead years, is a masterpiece: it tells the drama based on a work by the writer Vincenzo Cerami: An Average Little Man (1977) is a profoundly significant work, international respect to the tragicomic comedies of previous and subsequent works.

Giovanni Vivaldi is a humble employee on the verge of retirement. His life is divided between work and family. With his wife, he trusts their only son Mario, a recent graduate accountant, a not very brilliant boy in whom a particular naivety remains, even if he adheres to the petty bourgeois morality, a prompt insertion into the world of work. John humiliates himself towards his superiors and despite being a convinced Catholic, he enrolled in a Masonic lodge to acquire friendships and favoritism, obtaining in advance a copy of the examination of the ministerial announcement. On the morning of the exam, however, there is a bank robbery in which Mario is shot to death.

The Marquis of Grillo

The Marquis of Grillo (1981), who also makes use of an extraordinary interpretation by Alberto Sordi. The Marquis del Grillo won him the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 1982 Berlin Film Festival.

Papal Rome, 1809. The Marquis Onofrio del Grillo, Roman nobleman at the court of Pope Pius VII, spends his days, which always begin in the late morning (with the servants of the royal residence required not to make any kind of sound until he gets up), in total laziness, often visiting taverns, cultivating stories of clandestine love with ordinary people and maintaining a rebellious perspective in the eyes of the mother and conventional, tyrannical and even bigoted kinship.

Let’s Hope It’s a Girl

In the Eighties and Nineties the director’s gaze changes once again: from the male chauvinism of Amici mie to the exaltation of the feminine contained in the work Let’s Hope It’s a Girl (1985), with which he returned to obtain great honors from film critics and also from the public.

A group of women live in a farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside. Elena, a sensible and energetic lady, runs the farm, while the practical and intelligent maid Fosca is the true tutelary deity of the house, offering service to all. Fosca takes care of 2 little girls, her daughter Immacolata and also Elena’s niece, Martina who is the daughter of Claudia, a famous actress residing in Rome, who for narcissism and need for work abandoned the child leaving her to her sister Elena.

Parenti serpenti

The next Parenti serpenti (1991) presents family members through conflicts between generations, culminating in a heartbreaking and jaw-dropping finale.

The party is about to be celebrated. In Sulmona four boys, together with their respective families, meet in their parents’ house: Saverio, deputy sergeant of the off-duty carabinieri currently suffering from mild senile dementia, and also Trieste, still energetic and also lively. The family unit is made up of the following characters: Lina, a neurotic woman who works in the municipal library of Teramo, her husband Michele, surveyor of the same municipality, hunter, fan of the Pescara team and Christian Democrat and her son Mauro; Milena, a housewife enthusiastic about TV quizzes, depressed by her sterility, and her spouse Filippo, an important air force marshal in Rome.

Dear Goddamned Friends

In 1994 he made the grotesque Dear Goddamned Friends, starring the Genoese Paolo Villaggio. The film, shown at the Berlin Film Festival in the same year, wins the Silver Bear.

Tuscany, August 1944. War operations have moved further north and, amidst the devastation, an elderly Genoese ex boxer gathers a group of young people with the aim of setting up a company itinerant of boxing shows, to scrape together some money. Along the way, they are joined by an American black man, escaped from a prison camp and also with deserter aspirations, a former accomplice, the ex-girlfriend of a Communist and even a dog. Between liberation parties, impromptu meetings, armed peasants and partisan weddings, the group will finally try to return to Florence.

Monicelli also devoted himself to the theater, both in prose and in verse, especially in the 1980s. For TV he made the short film Do you really know Mangiafuoco? (1981), with Vittorio Gassman, The naive wife and the sick husband (1989) and Come when it rains outside (2000), while as a documentary he made A magical friend: the master Nino Rota (1999) and also several collective films. Monicelli occasionally lent himself as an actor: The cheerful sidewalk of crimes (1979), Under the Tuscan sun (2003), SoloMetro (2007).

Monicelli in the 2000s

Monicelli interpreted the style and contents of the Italian Comedy. His favorite actor was Alberto Sordi, who he immediately transformed into a star in The Great War and also in An Average Little Man, but he also had the merit of finding the extraordinary comic skills of 2 dramatic actors, Vittorio Gassman in Big Deal on Madonna Street and Monica Vitti in The girl with the pistol. The bitter smile that always accompanies his stories, the irony with which he loves to outline the losing characters, have constantly identified his work. It is probably no coincidence that many film critics consider I soliti ignoti the first true Italian comedy, and Un borghese piccolo piccolo the work that, with its dramatization, closes the cycle of this film genre.

With the advancing age Monicelli slowly decreased his activity without ever interrupting it, thanks to a constantly good physical and psychological shape. As proof of this, at the age of 91 he returned to the cinema with an unreleased film, The desert roses (2006). On the occasion of its launch, in a meeting with Gigi Marzullo, he confided that he was not worried about death, but that he greatly feared the moment when he would stop working, as he would be extremely bored. 

In a meeting in 2008 he declared that he had definitively abandoned his activity as a director with the short documentary Near the Colosseum … there is Monti. Despite this, in 2010 he made The new Brancaleone army, a short film in protest against cuts to culture and education. In the same year he took part in the production of the short film The Last Gypsy, a tribute to his film Amici mie.

Monicelli’s thoughts

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His last partner was Chiara Rapaccini, whom he met when he was 59 and she too was 19. They had a daughter, Rosa, when she was 34 and he was 74. In 2007 he declared that he lived alone, that he did not he missed the children and grandchildren, of being an elector of the Communist Refoundation and of having cried for the last time at the death of his father, while in an interview he revealed, in particular, the reason why he lived alone at 92 years:

“To stay alive as long as possible. The love of women, loved ones, daughters, wives, lovers, is really dangerous. Woman is a nurse of the soul, and if she has an old man neighbor is always ready to interpret his every wish, to bring him what he needs. So little by little this old man does nothing, he stays in an armchair, he doesn’t move anymore and ends up being a stoned old man. old is required to do things alone, make the bed, u scire, turn on the stove, undress, has 10 more years of life.

In a television interview he takes dark and very critical positions towards modern society: “Hope is a trick, it’s a bad word, it shouldn’t be said. Hope is a trap created by the bosses, those who tell you” Shut up, stop talking, pray that you will surely have your ransom, your reward in the afterlife, so now be good, go home. “[…] Never have hope, hope is a trap invented by those in charge.”

“What actually never existed in Italy is a great strike, a great revolution, a revolution that never happened in Italy … In England, there was in France, in Russia, in Germany, a little everywhere except in Italy, so something is needed that genuinely redeems these individuals who in reality have always been subjected, indeed they have been everyone’s servants for 300 years.

Monicelli, now seriously ill, has decided to take his own life by throwing himself from the window of the room that he was employed in urology, on the 5th floor of the San Giovanni Addolorata hospital, where he was hospitalized.After the civil commemorations held in his Roman home in the Monti district and at the Casa del Cinema, his body was cremated.

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