I soliti ignoti (Diebe haben's schwer), 1958, Mario Monicelli (Foto: Deutsche Kinemathek)

Mario Monicelli
The Human Comedy

February 9 to March 1, 2018

Mario Monicelli was an exceptional figure of Italian cinema: a progressive thinker and contemporary whose work provided a critical commentary on Italian politics and history for more than half a century. Acting from a Marxist humanist perspective, Monicelli's creations mostly took on the form of popular comedies featuring film stars of the time.
Totò cerca casa (1949), realized in collaboration with Steno (i.e. Stefano Vanzina), is a source of many revelations about the problems Italy faced in the post-war period, addressing more than the desolate housing situation. Made six years later, Un eroe dei nostri tempi (1955) displays the neuroses bred in the souls of an utterly overwhelmed middle class in the wake of a rampant economic miracle. Another eight years later, I compagni (1963) saw Monicelli explore the issues of organized resistance against capital. Albeit in period dress, his reflections can easily be applied to the conditions of the early 1960s. The rarely shown pop grotesque Toh, è morta la nonna! (1969) takes us directly to the spirit world of '68, where big industry finally collapses in on itself. Vogliamo i colonnelli (1973) tackles a delicate issue: the coups attempted by right-wing extremist elements in the government and military that provided many headlines in the 1970s. What Un eroe dei nostri tempi did for the boom, Un borghese piccolo piccolo (1977), an unsettling hybrid of comedy and vigilante justice thriller, did for "anni di piombo," the "Years of Lead" in which assassinations and terrorist attacks by both right- and left-wing paramilitary groups turned the country into a battlefield.
After Monicelli's most pessimist, darkest phase, at a time when film was becoming less and less relevant for political thinking, he retreated into a cinema of sceptical cheerfulness. In the realm once dominated by the Commedia all'italiana, a sagacious melancholy now spread, giving rise to late masterpieces such as the family breakdown story Speriamo che sia femmina (1986) or the Giuseppe Berto adaptation that could be considered the key to his oeuvre, ll male oscuro (1990). As in numerous other films from the 1980s and '90s, narratives revolve around emotional failures, sheer desperation, as well as regrets over what might be a wasted life. Perhaps wife and children were more important than the political cause after all? Several of these films end on a gloomy note reminiscent of Pirandello – in the end, not even more than one life can protect you from suffering defeat at the hands of life itself. Human beings are neither good nor bad. Ultimately, their only aspiration is to make it through the day not much worse off than they were at the outset.
This philosophy was well understood around the world. Following La grande guerra (1959), Monicelli became one of Italy's most popular, most award-winning and most economically successful filmmakers. To be more precise, the principles of his work were understood, but the specifics remained accessible only to local audiences, above all the humor of language in many of his films. For example, the anti-war sentiments in La grande guerra, as well as the buddy movie dynamics between the unfortunate soldiers Oreste and Giovanni are easy to pick up on, while the effect of countless regionally specific jokes in the dialogues and the play with Roman and Milanese idioms are impossible to translate.
Monicelli's aesthetics were just as vital to his success. Regardless of how genre-steeped the approach got, his films were always built on a classical realist foundation. Epic narratives like La grande guerra, I compagni or L'armata Brancaleone (1966) and their sequel (arguably an allegory of the Vietnam War) Brancaleone alle crociate (1970) continue to fascinate with their attention to detail and the sheer proportions of their imagery to this day. Mountain landscapes covered in corpses and military equipment, giant machine halls shaking with terrible noise, outworks reeking of filth and feces – a setting for raging, pointless lives. However, at times, Monicelli opts for a detour by means of genre excess, such as in the melodramatic dime novel farce Romanzo popolare (1974), where he exaggerates stereotypes with such force that real desires as well as underlying fears are forced to reveal themselves.
Mario Monicelli lived to be almost a hundred, he saw political systems come and go between 1915 and 2010, survived a world war and dozens of national as well as private crises, all the while remaining true to his own political principles. Late in life, he quit Craxi's PSI and became an active member of the Marxist-Leninist Rifondazione Comunista. His only fear in life was boredom – the whisperings behind his back regarding his relationship with a woman 40 years his junior disturbed him just as much as the label of diehard leftist – that is to say, not at all. In one of his last interviews, given about six months before he took his life by jumping out of a window in a conscious decision to avoid the suffering that would follow from his cancer diagnosis, Monicelli said: "Never harbor any hope. Hope is a trap, a vile thing invented by those in power."
The retrospective will take place in close collaboration with the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia National Film Archive and Istituto Luce Cinecittà, who kindly provided the majority of the 35mm prints for the program.
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