Laugh like an Italian
by Erin Blackwell
We inhabit a culture in which cinematic output is monopolized by Hollywood. The sad thing is, most of the world is similarly swamped by Tinseltown trash. These huge-budget, bloated-star juggernauts based on comic-book heroes so dominate the world's screens there's hardly any room left for art. Here in San Francisco, a defiant outpost of dissident film, hard-bitten programmers persist in screening vintage, silent, independent, and on all-too-rare occasions, foreign films. When the op arises, you must seize it. So it is with the single-day mini-fest of Dino Risi films at the Castro Theatre this Saturday.
Four films and a party celebrate the Italian director born 100 years ago, in a program by Luce Cinecitta recently seen at New York's MoMa. This is a history lesson and a nostalgic revisiting of the 1960s, when Italian film was an exciting presence at neighborhood movie theaters. Back then, Hollywood itself was making emotion-driven, human-scale narratives about ordinary people. American artists weren't yet afraid of "cheapening the brand" (a term not yet in use) by acknowledging the influence and inspiration of Italian movies. Italy, let's face it, has a rich heritage of visual, theatrical, architectural genius to steal from.
Comedy is a notoriously underrated genre, because people are too busy laughing to take it seriously. Comedy, among writers and performers, is considered much harder than drama. The Italians might be said to have invented comedy in the Western World, being the inheritors of Greek theater, and much later the creators of Commedia dell'arte, itself the basis of modern theater. The stock characters of Commedia live on in Dino Risi's films, as do the trenchant philosophical insights into human character. We laugh at the human comedy, only to keep from crying.
Vittorio Gassman is the tall, handsome, charismatic, athletic, joyous, foolish, shameless, dazzlingly versatile leading man of all four films. At 1 p.m., in Il mattatore (Love and Larceny, 1960) , he plays a con man, thief, and master of disguise, in homage to the trickery rampant in post-war Rome under reconstruction. At 3:30 p.m., Profumo di donna (Scent of a Woman, 1974) is the original of the 1992 Pacino remake. At 6 p.m., Jean-Louis Trintignant co-stars in Il sorpasso (The Easy Life, 1962) , a road movie bromance. At 10 p.m., I mostri (literally, The Monsters, 1963) features Gassman and fellow chameleon Ugo Tognazzi in a series of scathing sketches, both comic and tragic, about hypocrisy and betrayal. The first and final films are 35mm, the middle two newly restored DCP.
The reason to go to these movies is to see comedy in its most tragic form. At the end of the press screening of I mostri , I was weeping. I couldn't take the wisdom. I'm so used to distracting trash and the unchallenged reign of narcissism, in which no folly is questioned. Now that everyone's turned into robots staring at selfies, it's a jolt to watch clear-eyed vignettes skewering corruption and deceit as relevant here and now as they were there and then. This is comedy at its most devastating: philosophic and political, speaking truth to power, and alternately breaking your heart with its compassion for small lives ruined.
Amelia Antonucci is the local point-person for these brief flashes of Italian cinematic genius that light up the Castro screen once a year. She briefed me on the censoring of I mostri, the must-see masterpiece of this mini-fest. The film was withdrawn from distribution and chopped up, and there is still no DVD. That's too bad, because I'd like it watch it again and again. Centuries of Italian theatrical know-how are condensed into its two-hour run-time. Make sure you're wide awake for the 10 p.m. screening, you won't want to miss a thing. Spoiler alert: Gassman does an amazing Callas-inspired drag.
Tickets are $12 per screening, party: $15. All-access pass: $60. Info: CinemaItaliaSF.com