LOL Fail: Tragicomedy Happens with Totò and Mario Monicelli at Pacific Film Archive

by Richard von Busack

“You see, Italy is a very poor and weak country, and that’s what makes us so strong”
—the Old Man in Catch 22

Watching Totò the clown in the 1960 Mario Monicelli film The Passionate Thief  (March 5 and 7 at Pacific Film Archive) means observing someone so good at his craft that he tantalizes you with the mystery of being born to the vocation. Totò is the best argument I know against Chaplin’s comment that “a sad dignity” makes an aging clown unemployable—a similar thought to Shakespeare’s “how ill white hairs become a fool and jester.” (Not that it stopped Leslie Nielsen.)


Useless passion: Anna Magnani and Totò in Mario Monicelli’s The Passionate Thief.

Totò, as the Consulta Araldica would describe him, was the Duke of Illyria, Duke of Thessaly, the Prince of Byzantium, Exarch of Ravenna … and it goes on like that for a paragraph. So many fragrant titles Totò inherited at birth, none of which came with land or lira. Significantly, the actor has a line in Passionate Thief about how the distinguishing trait of nobility is a passion for useless things.

Here were weak, mismatched eyes, a strong yet jaunty Medici jaw to go with a diminutive figure; the foreshortening making him look like a mean caricature of William Castle. Totò was capable of broadness, funny-hat-wearing, tongue-poking fits. In Monicelli’s Totò Finds an Apartment, maddened by bureaucracy, Toto snatches an official rubber stamp and starts playing a Gene Krupa solo with it on anything he can find, including the butts of the civil servants around him.

Crowd pleasing – and Totò’s physical comedy makes me laugh as if I were watching Moe Howard and his brothers – but Totò is really sublime just slouching, wincing and watching things fall apart. Maybe he’s at his most paroxysmal in Big Deal in Madonna Street.

We’re reminded of Totò’s blue blood in Passionate Thief . He is called Umberto, like the king. He’s a boulevardier without any money, waiting expectantly for a dinner invitation as he loiters. His bowling-pin shaped physique is not flattered by a tuxedo. It’s a very cold New Year’s evening of late-1950s Rome, and the town is jumping. In the newly built glass pavilions, the rich are cha-cha-cha-ing it. If there is anything that pleases director Monicelli, it’s a crowded ballroom full of dancers getting tickled by paper streamers and nudged by balloons.

Tonight Umberto has a job to do; with understandable reluctance, he’s taken up partnership with a tough pickpocket named Lello (Ben Gazzara). Lello plans to use the old man as a partner to hide the wallets he swipes, when the hue and cry comes up from those he’s robbed.

A woman named Tortorella (Anna Magnani) interferes with this scheme; she’s a hanger-on at Cinecitta studio, who just did a one-line part in a bad religious movie. She is an old acquaintance of Umberto’s, and she’s all too familiar with his lack of prospects. Umberto tries to sweeten Tortorella when he encounters her: “You look like Kim Novak.” “You look like a crow,” she snaps back.

Crow, perhaps. But in her case, less Novak than Joan Blondell with a bad hangover. Magnani is compressed into a tight evening gown, decorated with little hanging glass doodads, the ensemble tied up in a genuine “foxine” stole. Magnani recalls Pauline Kael’s description of Madeline Kahn: an hourglass figure in which the sand has slipped a little. But she’s no comic harridan; the film finds its soul in a de Maupassant moment where Tortorella has a little talk with her reflection in a mirror, deciding that she’ll go home with Lello if he plays his cards right.

Bello Lello: Ben Gazzara and Anna Magnani in The Passionate Thief.

Bello Lello: Ben Gazzara and Anna Magnani in The Passionate Thief.

Lello, whom the increasingly charmed Tortorella calls “Bello Lello,” takes his two pickups on a wheel of fortune ride. The three get into a snipe hunt for a wealthy and slurry American (played by ex-Stanford pre-med Fred Clark, a hobgoblin of 1960s sitcoms). At one point, they’re getting cramped rides across drunk and disorderly Eternal City, with cursive neon signs reflected in the icy streets, and war zones of rubbish to wade through. On another moment, they’re gorging on cake and bubbly at the German ambassador’s mansion.

Gazzara wrote later that he “got a lasting lesson in freedom and improvisation” working on the film, in which he was dubbed. He added that he had enough Italian from his Sicilian parents to get the gist of what was going on as Totò and Magnani and Monicelli monkeyed with the script. The perhaps colorless American title Passionate Thief is explained by the character of Lello. There’s a difference between someone with a true vocation for thieving, as opposed to the rest of us, who only pick and steal during times of duress.

BigDealPosterAlso at PFA, 1957’s Big Deal on Madonna Street (March 7) proves robber Willie Sutton’s saying, “Crime pays, but it doesn’t pay much.” It’s a parody of the silent professionalism of the burglars in Jules Dassin’s 1955 Rififi . Rififi became a kind of mini-genre in itself—the title means “rumble” or “trouble” in the argot, and there were at least eight films made with “Rififi” in the title, though none were sequels.

The prize luring the gang in Big Deal isn’t as big as Rififis jewelry store in the Rue de la Paix. A group of slum-dwellers aim their minimal talents at a pawn shop. Though it has a safe that needs to be cracked, the pawn shop is the kind of institution where they’ll give you a loan using your bed sheets as collateral.

The mob includes: a bragging, glass-jawed boxer; a put-upon baby photographer (Marcello Mastroianni); a toothless old feeb; and Vittorio Gassman as the would be mastermind in a too-small pinstripe suit. Finally, an undersized Sicilian bumpkin, with a red-hot sister he keeps in purdah (the latter played by Tunisian temptress Claudia Cardinale, speaking demotic Italian in this, her debut).

Heralding the failure to come: the worried face of Totò as the safecracker who rents out tools. The gang’s every would-be moment of impressive cool fails: trying to snap his fingers, one jailbird-to-be barely makes a squishing noise. A thrown knife bounces off the wall like a deflated squash ball. The moment to synchronize watches is useless, since everyone hocked their timepieces a while back.

No one will call Big Deal a sleeper; it ranks as one of the best comedies ever made, up with The Lavender Hill Mob , and it’s been ripped off time and again. As a follow up to this hit, The Passionate Thief should have made a similar splash, but it was denied to Americans in 1960. With luck the new 4K restoration of The Passionate Thief will become as essential to New Year’s Eve celebrations as champagne and firecrackers.

Director Monicelli, born in 1915, gets all due centennial honors at PFA with “Mario Monicelli: Satires, Capers and Sendups,” a retrospective of five other films besides those just mentioned. Also playing is a eulogizing 2012 documentary titled According to Mario (April 3) with interviews ranging from Mastroianni to the director’s salty, tattooed daughter Marina.

Monicelli, who worked with the subject of failure like Della Robbia worked with blue, might have been bemused by the fact that less than one eighth of his output made the cut in this retrospective. “I always make the same film. A group of people try to go bigger and fail,” he said once; another time he defined his humor as rooted in “the bad luck of others.” (Such was Mel Brooks’ maxim, “Tragedy is what happens to me, and comedy is what happens to you.”)


Lampoon’s vocation: Mario Monicelli’s For Love and Gold sends up chivalry.

Included here are scarce films: 1966’s For Love and Gold aka L’armata Branceleone (March 29) the first of Monicelli’s two popular lampoons of chivalry, has as much in common with Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso as it does with Monty Python and the Holy Grail . The hulking Gassman stars as a ne’er do well knight with a swiped deed on a kingdom far away. We Want the Colonels from 1973 (April 3) and Dear Michael from 1976 (April 19) were contemporary satires of Italy during what Monicelli called “its last burst of vigor, the 1970s.” The political extremism of those years were grist for his comedy.

We can compare Monicelli with Manuel de Oliveira as a filmmaker working from the edge of the silent era into his ninth decade. Like John Boorman, he grew up near a movie studio (Tirrenia Studios, near his home in the Atlantic City-like Viareggio), and like Boorman he worked as a clapper loader.

In his youth, Monicelli directed the silent 16mm film The Boys of Paul Street , a kind of Our Gang comedy with a tragic Hungarian ending. It was sourced from a book by Ferenc Molnar, whose Liliom provided grist for everyone from Fritz Lang to Rogers and Hammerstein. The Boys of Paul Street is a popular book in the land of the Magyars—it has a statue to commemorate it in the Via Prater in Budapest. It’d be interesting to compare ‘n’ contrast Monicelli’s version with the one Frank Borzage did, No Greater Glory . Toss in the Hal Roach pastiche General Spanky and call it a triple bill.

Mario Monicelli fotografato da Pino SettanniMonicelli was of the generation of the masters of neorealism—and perhaps farther to the left, politically, than all of them. In his last decade he attended protests against Silvio Berlusconi’s oligarchy, and in his nineties he went to Ramallah to make a video documentary. “No one is freer than a ninety-year-old man,” he said. He was honored with a street political demonstration the day after his death—he slipped the claws of cancer by jumping out of a high hospital window at age 95. According to Mario shows us someone still scrappy in age, aerodynamically bald like Picasso.

As he aged, Monicelli’s stories got slippery. He claimed his sets were always harmonious. Observers who had watched the director fight with both Gassman and Ugo Tognazzi disagreed. Monicelli thought of himself as a stickler—his motto was, “The less you adapt, the more they pay you.” But he made 63 films, a big number even for a man comfortable with the idea not every work can be a masterwork. Like so many entertainers, he was also deluded by the sad side of the law that the pot needs to boil so that people can eat. His definition of a failed film was a film that failed to sell enough tickets.

Murderous futility: A CinemaScope vision from Mario Monicelli's The Great War .

Murderous futility: A CinemaScope vision from Mario Monicelli’s The Great War .

It’s remarkable that a farceur, so good with the loose, the fast, and the semi-scripted, could make two superbly furnished historical comedy/dramas. From 1959, The Great War (March 20) is in black and white and CinemaScope, with a Nino Rota soundtrack. Gassman and Alberto Sordi are a pair of reluctant pals, fighting on the Italian front. Monicelli is uninterested in war movie heroics; The Great War unwinds for 44 minutes until we see the first casualty—a captured Austrian spy shot in the back by a firing squad. Busacca (Gassman) is an ex-con who first got pardoned, and then drafted, trying to cope with the Army life—with him is a reluctant sidekick, a former barber (Alberto Sordi) who once took Busacca’s money and ran.

Maybe it had been done before, this message of glory being not worth its price. Busacca says, “If only the dead could speak of war, but they keep quiet.” There were worse fronts than the mountainous Italian/Austrian lines, where Hemingway set A Farewell to Arms , but there was enough murderous futility to leave 500,000 Italian soldiers dead. Someday, you’ll meet a war buff who knows the difference between the Third and the Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo, but these niceties were less important to Monicelli than telling details: thin soup, lice, marches, the way a live chicken gets caught in no-man’s-land. Fresh troops waiting at the station, joshing and laughing, are silenced by the arrival of a long white hospital train with shuttered windows. Some consolation at the front is provided by Sivana Magnano as a cross, lush and larcenous prostitute who is amused—for a time—by Busacca’s connivance.


Monicelli’s The Organizer  April 5), from 1963, has no American analogue—John Sayles’ Matewan is close, but Sayles’s best work is no match for cinematographer Giuseppi Rotunno’s vivid black and white of Turin in the late 1890s. The steam powered looms and shuttles are so well-delineated you could get white lung from watching. It’s the world of our great grandparents brought to life, as if serious documentaries were being made at the turn of the previous century. Pushed to their limits by 14-hour work days, the employees go on a wildcat strike—this draws in a gentle Genoese labor organizer (Mastroianni) who arrives by boxcar.

Monicelli’s work is epic here, unsweetened by the pie-in-the-sky rhetoric of 1930s labor dramas — The Organizer is leftier than Waiting for Lefty . Monicelli’s feeling for the working life is unique in the movies. There are moments of freshness in the most unlikely scene, as when a baby is handed through the iron bars to be kissed (it’s a scene Monicelli had also staged in Big Deal ). The characters have the nobility of endurance, without being saints: a factory woman complains about the gross table manners of her fellow workers and then lights up a stogie.

“There are only two options in this world, brotherhood or crime,” Saul Bellow wrote, and in the world of his movies, Monicelli chooses both … for all the good it will do.


March 5-April 19, 2015. PFA Theater, 2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. $6.50-9.50.

Horizontal RuleRichardvonBusackRichard von Busack is a staff writer at San Jose’s Metro Newspapers. He’s the author of The Art of Megamind and has written for Entertainment Weekly, n +1 and  He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.

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