One thing cinephiles learn fast is just how easy it is, thanks to the limits and whims of distribution, for celebrated films to fade into the background outside their homeland. So one way to begin with Italian director Mario Monicelli is how overshadowed he is today on the world stage. You could say, only half-jokingly, that he'd be more famous if only more people had heard of him, or if his global reputation kept up with the one he holds in Italy. Monicelli began filmmaking in the 1930s, was a prolific screenwriter in the 40s, took off as a director in the 50s, and continued making movies without much pause until his death in 2010. In his heyday as a hitmaker, he worked with stars like Anna Magnani, Marcello Mastroianni, Totò, Claudia Cardinale, and Monica Vitti. He once shared a Golden Lion at Venice with Roberto Rossellini, and was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film two years in row (and then a third time before the decade was out). Yet very few of his 50-plus films are available now in the United States, and though renowned in Italy, his place in the world academy lags considerably behind his contemporaries. An instructive case is the omnibus film Boccaccio 70 (1962), where the international distributor, concerned about the lengthy runtime, originally cut Monicelli's segment entirely. The film's other three directors—Fellini, Visconti, and De Sica—boycotted the Cannes screening in protest.
All of which makes the Monicelli films touring the American repertory circuit even more welcome. After a run at Film Forum in New York City last winter, a series of eight films has arrived at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, beginning with two farces: The Passionate Thief (1960) and Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), both of which feed off the energy of an audience and show how the neorealist impulse could just as easily blossom into comedy instead of tragedy. The Passionate Thief is an all-in-one-night misadventure structured like a juggling act, weaving together various seekers on New Year's Eve, including a Cinecittà extra (Anna Magnani, to die for), a skilled pickpocket, his unwilling accomplice, a mild-mannered tram conductor, and a rich and very drunk American tourist looking for the Trevi Fountain. Everything serious is acknowledged but deferred until the sun comes up; it's a joyous portrait of a culture balancing its time between the sweet life and the Pope.
Madonna Street, by far the more famous of the two, is perhaps Monicelli's most enduring film here in America and one of the few that's widely available. The premise couldn't be simpler (a group of low-class thieves does everything wrong), but the film turns it into a very rich series of observations. The nature of Monicelli's comedy is to present the seemingly nonsensical yet instantly recognizable relationships between people, each other, and the society they call home. Breezing through theft and vandalism with a light touch, Madonna Street knows the secret of doing crime in a comedy: that it works because we care more about people than we do about property. And the film also knows that, however silly it gets, that's essentially a political statement.
Like a great many comedy directors, Monicelli's style in these two films places emphasis almost entirely on performance and character. In The Passionate Thief, I was surprised at the way modest long takes kept sneaking up on me, which is to say that unlike an Orson Welles or a Paul Thomas Anderson, the subject of these shots never becomes the shots themselves. But a conversation between characters would come to an end, and I would realize just how long the camera had been running and just how far it had followed Anna Magnani from point A to point B. These moments are not as intricate as, say, Jean Renoir in the 30s or Max Ophüls in the 40s, but the spirit is much the same: keeping the actors moving, in focus, and uninterrupted, and extending a robust brand of theater into a cinematic space.
In this context, The Great War (1959), Monicelli's Golden Lion winner and the third film in the retrospective, is strikingly more ambitious and formal, pitched very intriguingly between the scale of a war film and the scale of a comedy. Made between Madonna Street and The Passionate Thief and set in World War I, the film centers on two shirkers (Alberto Sordi and Vittorio Gassman) who become antagonistic comrades in trying to get through the war while seeing as little actual combat as possible. The perspective is a worm's-eye-view; almost every character feels like a supporting role, including the two stars, and the tone would evaporate if a real hero ever entered the screen.
But the film is shot with widescreen splendor, filling a CinemaScope frame with as many vivid compositions and dynamic motions as the era's more purely serious epics. In one scene, the camera tracks quickly backward down a column of soldiers, settling on two who are arguing about whether or not their favorite pin-up girl is chaste in real life (and indeed, insisting that your pin-up girls be sexually pure is the sort of irony that Monicelli's comedy thrives on). Then the brass appears, everyone stands at attention, and the camera tracks forward, retracing its steps to settle on an Austrian spy, who's lined up against the wall and executed. Done all in one take, it smashes the film's different tones together, with democratic comedy temporarily overrun by technocratic mise en scène.
In a way, this balance is so delicate that it's a shame the film doesn't follow it all the way until the end, instead settling on straightforward tragedy. But coming two years after Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957), which also used World War I's strategic fuck-ups and lack of moral imperative to make a point, The Great War is a reminder that warm humor is as effective an anti-war statement as cold, horrific irony. For one, the episodic nature of comedy, with its emphasis on riffs and routines over constant forward motion, suits a vision of a soldier's life where more time is spent on labor, waiting, and bureaucracy than on the action itself. Most importantly, comedy glories in foolishness, laziness, lustfulness, cowardice, incompetence, insubordination, and gluttony. Its grandest tradition is celebrating people's most undisciplined impulses, and discipline is something that life during wartime insists upon. Sordi and Gassman are terrible soldiers, just as the gang in Madonna Street are terrible thieves and the revelers in The Passionate Thief are terrible Catholics. Yet it is this sympathy for them, never wavering and never questioned, that gives Monicelli's best cinema a distinct afterglow. "I'm a coward," one soldier frantically insists near the end of The Great War. John Wayne would not approve, I'm sure. But this moment of confession is not humiliation or self-debasement. In fact, it's the best defense anyone could have.