Interview with Mario Monicelli
Comedy Italian Style
Photo: Head photo & thumbnail sourced from Criterion DVD
The distinguished Italian director Mario Monicelli was in Montreal to serve as Jury Member at the 1999 Montreal World Film Festival. I spoke to Mr. Monicelli about Italian comedy in general and, more specifically, one of the first films to gain both critical and popular success and help cement the Italian comedy film’s international reputation, I Soliti Ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street), 1958. This interview was conducted in Italian and translated to English by the author.
Offscreen:What does “Italian Comedy” mean to you?
M.M.: Italian comedy is a type of comedy quite specific to Italy. The Italian comedy revolves around arguments and themes that are very dramatic, and sometimes tragic. So the theme is tragic, but the point of view is comical and humoristic. This is a type of comedy that grows precisely out of the fact that Italians see reality and life in this manner. But this goes way back, it surely isn’t something we invented. It comes from antique literature, from Boccaccio, from Commedia dell’Arte. The themes that make one laugh always stem from poverty, hunger, misery, old age, sickness, and death. These are the themes that make Italians laugh anyway. And the best one’s have always used these.
Offscreen: Do you think this is the same today?
M.M.: Today, it isn’t entirely the same, or in this way. The fact being, only for now hopefully, that there are no longer the directors and actors to make them. But younger directors even today still draw from things that aren’t necessarily funny, but are dramatic. The more dramatic and tragic the moment, the more material there will be for irony and comedy. This is for Italy, not necessarily in general.
Offscreen: Some critics write that the classic Italian comedy of the fifties and sixties left behind visual humor, Arlecchino’s slapstick. But I think there still is a considerable amount of this type of humor in Big Deal on Madonna Street.
M.M.: Yes, and on the other hand not only in this film, but because in Italy we have a tradition of actors who are expressive, use gesture. This comes from the great tradition of, and I repeat, Commedia dell’Arte, of movement and the body. In fact, if you notice in most Italian comedies there is little use of the close-up, preferring instead shots showing the body. Like in the great American comic tradition of Chaplin and Keaton. The close-up is usually more dramatic, while the medium or long shot is better suited to the comic or ironic. Because, of course, the actor expresses himself with the body and not just the face.
Offscreen: Yes and I noticed in Big Deal on Madonna Street that there are many medium or long shots that are tightly composed, with two, three, four, or five characters in the frame. Which helps render the idea of a group.
M.M.: Yes and also because, in general, in my films I always look at a group of people who want to attempt an enterprise greater than their means. They begin on this enterprise and they fail. So in Italian comedy there is almost always a sad ending, or lack of a happy ending. The ending is always bad, which seems like the contrary of comedy in general, where the ending is happy.
Offscreen: And what’s funny about the end of Big Deal on Madonna Street is that the Gassman character, Peppe, actually stumbles into work, which is even worse!
M.M.: Yes, that’s true.
Offscreen: Was Big Deal on Madonna Street also intended as a parody of neorealism?
M.M.: Yes, although by then neorealism was already a thing of the past, something that was surpassed. It was more a parody that was aligned with a certain realism around us, with the poverty, and with people who had to do the best they could with whatever means possible to survive, with petty crimes. I couldn’t make the same film today, with a group of people robbing a bank with drills, small bombs, etc., it wouldn’t be realistic.
Offscreen: That’s one of the reasons why the characters are sympathetic. They aren’t really criminals.
M.M.: No, they are people without education or strong family support who are only attempting to survive. All my films have this type of theme or idea.
Offscreen: Many people have also called the film a parody of the American filmmaker Jules Dassin’s film Rififi, shot in France.
M.M.: Yes because we saw this as a film shot in a very harsh, realist style. Very scientific, as the Peppe character continually says. So we wanted to do the same thing, but the characters didn’t have the means. The way they worked was quite the contrary actually.
Offscreen: Well maybe the Toto character worked in a somewhat scientific way, in the scene where he demonstrates the different methods for breaking into a safe.
M.M.: Well he was a professional safecracker. So he was somewhat of a professional, but not the others.
Offscreen: Speaking about Toto, the group of actors you put together for this film is exceptional, Vittorio Gassman, Marcello Mastroianni, Toto, Claudia Cardinale. It was in fact Cardinale’s first Italian film. Is it true that she did not speak Italian then?
M.M.: Yes, she didn’t speak it or understand it. Because she was born in Tunisia and spoke only French. But she was only 17 years old, a young girl really. She later said that as she played this rather small role she didn’t understand anything at all. She didn’t know what here role was, who she was, but only followed my strict directions and moved about accordingly, speaking French.
Offscreen: Do you speak French?
Offscreen: So she learned to speak Italian later, making films, and she married an Italian if I remember.
M.M.: Yes, well she then stayed in Italy and became an Italian actress. After all her surname, her family, Cardinale, is Italian.
Offscreen: Related to this, why is it that most Italian films are shot silent and postdubbed?
M.M.: Many reasons. First of all because in Italy we often shoot with actors who are not professional. For example in I Soliti Ignoti the guy who plays the Sicilian, the jealous brother Ferribotte, was not an actor. He was a dishwasher in a restaurant I would frequent. The guy who plays Capannelle, the sporty guy, wasn’t an actor either. I think he was a bricklayer. Of course Cardinale wasn’t an actress then either. But this way of shooting films was quite common in Italy, to use actors taken from the street. So because they didn’t know how to recite their lines they had to be dubbed. On the other hand, you know that in Italy we speak many different dialects. So, for example, the actor who plays the Sicilian was not Sicilian. He was neither an actor, or a Sicilian! So I had to have a Sicilian dub his voice. Another one of the actors who was supposed to be Bolognesian (from Bologna) was from Naples, so I had to dub his voice. Cardinale spoke French so I had to dub her voice into Sicilian.
Offscreen: It seems to me that Marcello and Gassman did their own dubbing?
M.M.: Yes, Marcello, Gassman, and Toto dubbed their own voices.
Offscreen: This was Gassman’s first comic role. Was it difficult working with him?
M.M.: No. It is easy to work with good, quality actors, much more so than with mediocre actors. There is good communication and understanding with a quality actor. Gassman read the script, we discussed his character a bit and he quickly understood it. We exchanged very little words around this. A day or two of rehearsals and we were ready. On the other hand with mediocre actors you often have to go back to the beginning, to start over again.
Offscreen: How was it working with the great Toto, who you worked with on many occasions before this film?
M.M.: He was a great actor, even though he wasn’t well known outside of Italy. But Italy he was very, very popular. He was an excellent stage actor, with a powerful comic presence. He knew what to do, and how to do it. Because even if an actor understands his character he also has to know how to interpret that with gestures and expressions. And many actors don’t have the actual body control to accomplish that. And Toto did.
Offscreen: How long did it take to shoot the film?
M.M.: Ten weeks.
Offscreen: Was it shot mainly in a studio or on location?
M.M.: Most of it was shot on location. Even most of the interiors were on location. The only interior that was shot in a studio was the wall that gets broken into at the end because I couldn’t break a wall in an actual apartment! But all the other interiors were shot on location. Which of course was a particular trait of Italian cinema, to shoot on location. Especially in those days, although that tendency remains even in contemporary Italian cinema.
Offscreen: I mention that because the exteriors reminded me of Fellini’s I Vitelloni, which I was surprised to find out was shot in studio.
M.M.: Yes. Fellini always filmed everything in Cinecitta. He was unique that way. Most other directors also filmed on location, Visconti, De Sica, Germi.
Offscreen: You’ve also written many films.
Offscreen: According to you what is the secret in writing characters that are inept, egotistical, and yet still sympathetic? This is something that I find particular to so many Italian comedies.
M.M.: Well, you’ve been to Italy, so you know Italians. That’s the way Italians are! They’re a little confused, but sympathetic. They aren’t hard or violent. Even if you get to know people leading more or less a bad life or on the road of hard knocks, you will discover that they are sympathetic and entertaining. The trickster has to be that way or else he won’t be able to deceive! Italians are that way.
Offscreen: You have been fortunate to have worked with some of the great Italian screenwriters, like Age and Scarpetti, and some of the great cinematographers, like Gianni Di Venanzo, who unfortunately died so young.
M.M.: Yes, he invented a whole new style of photography.
Offscreen: Yes that’s exactly what I wanted to ask you, this bleached white look. Can you talk a little about that?
M.M.: Yes, a grey-white and also very harsh, cut light. At that time we shot with lots of light. So the shots were complicated because of all the lights, electricians, etc. Gianni shot with very little light. He was very fast, so we could shoot in real locations with a small crew. He had a style very well suited to neorealism. He was one of the first cinematographers to do so, along with Tonino Delli Colli and Guiseppe Rotunno. Who, in fact, also taught the Americans, because they both worked considerably in America.
Offscreen: At what time did you shoot those desolate street scenes, early in the morning?
M.M.: No, at that time in Italy in the fifties, there were not that many cars and little traffic. Italy was a poor country. People walked or took what little public transport there was, especially in the city peripherals. In the city centers of course it was a little busier, but still not heavy in traffic. Italy was a country not far removed from the war, with much visible destruction. That was the reality.
Offscreen: It was filmed in Rome?
M.M.: Yes, in the city periphery. The characters lived in the city periphery. They didn’t live in city center buildings or near La piazza di Spagna or La piazza di Venezia!
Offscreen: Where there would be more people surely.
M.M.: Yes and people of a better social standing.
Offscreen: These locations help considerably to render the film its sense of realism, with the destroyed buildings and empty lots. There is also, with the newly constructed buildings, the sense of an Italy starting over again.
M.M.: Yes certainly. In fact it was a very vibrant period for literature, cinema, and the theatre.
Offscreen: Did you plan much before shooting with Gianni Di Venanzo?
M.M.: We talked but not much because we were in agreement that we wanted to shoot the film in a photographic tone that was dramatic, not comedic and brightly lit. On the contrary, harsh and dramatic, because the film has a dramatic side in that it is about poor people. We also have the death of Cosimo, and his funeral. So it’s a comedy but with death. Which was something new at the time. It was rare to find death and failure in a comedy. I had difficulty making the film because the producers didn’t want me to make it this way. With Vittorio Gassman who wasn’t a comedian, with the film ending in failure, and with the death of a central character. All this made it difficult. But Di Venanzo understood the tone. To make people laugh with a story that was dramatic rather than comic. But seen with a comic eye.
Offscreen: How did you go about writing the screenplay with Age-Scarpetti?
M.M.: We would begin by talking about everything but the film. We would talk about what happened that day, newspaper items, books and films we had seen. And then, bit by bit, we would get to the film. We would begin by talking about specific scenes, work scenes out, take notes, and then divide things up. You write this scene and I write this scene. We would then get back together, exchange our scenes, and make comments. Then go back to do rewrites and go through the process again until we arrive at the final script.
Offscreen: Was it all scripted and ready before shooting or was there any improvising?
M.M.: No, I don’t do improvising. I don’t know how. I like to know everything in advance and spend a long time in preparation.
Offscreen: Well it shows because I noted in the film the powerful theme of imprisonment. All the characters are imprisoned in one way or another. At the beginning we see Cosimo and Peppe in jail, Marcello’s wife is also in jail. We see Marcello at home with the baby. The Sicilian Ferribotte who keeps his sister locked at home. What were trying to say with this?
M.M.: I wanted to say that this was a reality at the time. It existed. Everyone, to survive, had to do what was necessary. One sold cigarettes on the black market, so he eventually went to prison. The photographer had to stay home to take care of his baby. The little old man who ate all the time survived by pick pocketing on the bus. They were not big criminals. Many were in jail three, four, five months, then would come out for a while, steal again and go back in. It was a continuous circle for all of them.
Offscreen: Getting back to the script, I think one of the funniest lines in the film comes after they watch the film shot by Marcello to help Toto with the safe. They ask Toto what he thought about the film, and he replies, “well as a film it stinks, but it’s better than nothing.”
M.M.: Even that represents the lack of professionalism. The film was shot with a camera stolen at a flea market that doesn’t work well, and then the view of the safe becomes blocked by a passing clothesline.
Offscreen: Was that film-within-a-film shot in 16mm?
Offscreen: When I watched that I wondered if Scorsese had been influenced for Mean Streets and Raging Bull?
M.M.: Well Scorsese is someone who knows a great deal about Italian cinema. Even Coppola, Pacino, all the Italian-Americans have a profound awareness of neorealist cinema. More than us!
Offscreen: Another very funny moment is the ending where they break into the wrong wall and end up in the kitchen, but seem content with eating the pasta and beans they find in the refrigerator! That scene always makes me hungry!
M.M.: Yes. The refrigerator becomes like the safe!
Offscreen: It’s also funny because you realize that it’s the poor stealing from the poor because pasta and beans is not a meal eaten by the bourgeois. In this sense the humour is culturally specific, since a non-Italian may not get the social meaning of pasta and beans. And you take the gag further by having them discuss the cooking merits of the pasta and beans, Tiberio arguing it needs more oil, and Peppe, perhaps defending the woman who cooked it, Nicoletta, says it is fine.
M.M.: Yes, it’s a great dish, and even if we all eat it, it’s understood as a meal for the poor.
Offscreen: They become imprisoned once again, in a kitchen. The scene also displays your funny use of slapstick, when they throw the cat out at the janitor when they overhear him on the phone being asked to go look for the cat.
Offscreen: Have you ever encountered problems with the Italian censors?
M.M.: Yes, many times, but before this film.
Offscreen: Do you think that comedy allows a greater freedom for social criticism than straight drama?
M.M.: Certainly. True social criticism is done only with comedy because if you laugh at misery, illness, or poverty you can go deeper into it. And you accomplish more. The goal is to consider the reality around you, from the point of view of the humorist. I think you need to look deeper to make people laugh at things that aren’t ridiculous or funny.
Offscreen: I think a good recent example of that is Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.
M.M.: Yes, precisely. Like I said, you can make people laugh at the most horrible of things. It’s hard, but it’s more profound.
Offscreen: Do you think there any taboo areas for comedy?
M.M.: No. If the eye is sensitive enough, all is possible.
Offscreen: How did the selection of jazz music come about?
M.M.: That was the first time jazz music was used in an Italian film. I knew a musician named Umiliani, who was a ghostwriter (for music). He would write music for other musicians whenever a little jazz piece was needed, but he never received credit. This was his first screen credit.
Offscreen: I haven’t seen it, but Louis Malle made a remake of Big Deal on Madonna Street called Crackers (1984). Have you seen it?
M.M.: It’s a disaster! They did two things wrong. They shot it in Atlantic City and in such a rich society, you can not make that film [ed. the film was shot in San Francisco]. Secondly, Bob Fosse did a musical number that was awful. The characters didn’t fit in with this milieu. It just didn’t work.
Offscreen: There was also a sequel, I Soliti Ignoti vent-anni dopo (1987).
M.M.: Yes, that was directed by my assistant Amanzio Todini. It also didn’t work because twenty years later the nature of film crime changed. There were revolvers, shooting, blood, and bombs. The era was too harsh, violent, and lacked the humanity. You could do it but it becomes another film.
Offscreen: Mister Monicelli, you’ve had such a long, illustrious career. Is there something that you are most proud of?
M.M.: You know you can not really say, because sometimes you are most proud of a film that had great critical and audience success. And you are happy. Another time you become affectionate with a film for the contrary reason. You loved the film, worked very hard on it, but it didn’t catch with the public. It’s like a son who fails. Another time the film is very original, without precedent, and you feel proud for that reason. Hence I don’t know what to say because there are two, three, four films that could apply. Amici mie (My Friends, 1982), I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s a film that had a sensational success and started a type of Italian Tuscan comedy, in the Tuscan dialect. Or, my favorite film, L’Armata Brancaleone (The Incredible Army of Brancaleone, 1965), a film that takes place in the middle ages, a middle ages that is extremely poor, miserable, and ignorant. It’s not the middle ages as taught in school, with knights on white horses, and tournaments. This film had an incredible success in Italy. Professors called to discuss the film with me. The students agreed with the film’s tone, but not the professors. So it provoked much discussion. I traveled across all of Italy discussing this film. And I received great satisfaction from this.
Offscreen: What to you think of today’s Italian directors, people like Nanni Moretti, Roberto Benigni, Maurizio Nichetti?
M.M.: Well they’re good, but there aren’t many of them. Benigni is good because he does everything, he writes, directs, and acts. Which is difficult to do. He’s had great success, although he isn’t a great director. He’s a good actor and has a very good screenwriter, Vincenzo Cerami.
Offscreen: Mister Monicelli, what do you do to keep so young?
M.M.: Good health! I eat and drink all that I want, but in moderation. I’m lucky.
Offscreen: Is this your first time in Montreal?
M.M.: No my second time. I was here about 12 years ago with my film Speriamo che sai Femmina (Let’s Hope it’s a Girl, 1986). A film that was very successful in Italy, with Italian, Norwegian, French, and English actors. All dubbed. We’re very good at dubbing in Italy.
Offscreen: Are you working on anything presently?
M.M.: Yes. In Italy presently there is a mania for gambling. On television, the lotto, cards, soccer, all for money. So I’m making a film about this mania that has captured Italy in the last few years. It’s a huge industry.
Offscreen: Yes we have that here too in Quebec, and there’s quite a social criticism about it because most of the people who gamble are those who can’t afford it. Instead of eating they gamble.
M.M.: Yes, it is mainly the poor. It also discourages someone from learning a trade, or going to school. Why should I learn a profession when I could guess the lucky number and be set for life.
Offscreen: So it sounds like a comedy?
M.M.: Yes, of course. I only make comedies!
I Soliti ignoti, (1958) Directed by Mario Monicelli; Writing credits: Suso Cecchi D’Amico, Agenore Incrocci (story) (as Age), Mario Monicelli, Furio Scarpelli (story) (as Scarpelli) Cast: Vittorio Gassman (Peppe ), Renato Salvatori (Mario), Marcello Mastroianni (Tiberio ), Totò (Dante Cruciani), Memmo Corotenuto (Cosimo), Rosanna Rory (Norma), Carla Gravina (Nicoletta), Claudia Cardinale (Carmela), Carlo Pisacane (Capannelle), Tiberio Murgia (Ferribotte )
Produced by Franco Cristaldi; Original music: Piero Umiliani Cinematography: Gianni Di Venanzo; Film Editing: Adriana Novelli Production Design: Piero Gherardi;Costume Design: Piero Gherardi Assistant Director: Mario Maffei; Cameraman: Erico Menczer