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Mario Monicelli: Big Deal on Madonna Street + The Great War

Big Deal on Madonna Street Marcello Mastroianni Renato Salvatori Vittorio Gassman
Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori, Vittorio Gassman in Mauro Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street.
Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Mario Monicelli, the (co)writer-director of Italian cinema classics such as I soliti ignoti / Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), La grande guerra / The Great War (1959), and I compagni / The Organizer (1963), leapt to his death from a fifth-story hospital window in Rome. Monicelli was 95.

Though not nearly as internationally known as, say, Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, or Franco Zeffirelli, Monicelli was perhaps the best portraitist of Italian sociopolitical mores during the second half of the 20th century.

For instance, one of Monicelli’s earliest efforts (co-directed with Steno a.k.a. Stefano Vanzina), Vita da cani / A Dog’s Life (1950), chronicled the travails of a provincial theater troupe in post-World War II Italy. Aldo Fabrizi, of Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, co-starred with the fast-ascending Gina Lollobrigida.

In Un eroe dei nostri tempi / A Hero of Our Times (1955), Alberto Sordi played a stereotypically selfish, narrow-minded petit bourgeois, lusting after a much younger woman, in this case the underage Giovanna Ralli. Meanwhile, Sordi’s “hero” is lusted after by his boss, played by Franca Valeri. (Pietro Germi would fool around with a similar set-up – pathetic older man, nubile woman, older woman – in the better-known Divorce Italian Style.)

Big Deal on Madonna Street, a crime comedy nominated for the 1958 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, was Monicelli’s first major international success. Personally, I don’t find it one of his best despite some good comic situations and a generally capable cast that included Vittorio Gassman, Renato Salvatori, Totò, Carla Gravina, Marcello Mastroianni, and Claudia Cardinale.

If you haven’t seen Big Deal on Madonna Street but feels the plot sounds familiar – a bunch of ragtag, inept thieves try to break into a pawnshop – then that’s possibly because you’ve watched Woody Allen’s Small Town Crooks, which is nearly a remake. (Or perhaps Lloyd Bacon’s 1942 comedy Larceny, Inc., which also has a similar premise.)

Vittorio Gassman, Alberto Sordi, and Monicelli worked together on another Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee, The Great War, winner of the 1959 Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and of the David di Donatello Award for Best Production and Best Actor (Gassman and Sordi). The story of two Italian soldiers doing their best to avoid fighting in World War I, The Great War could have been a truly great movie had it lost 20 minutes or so on the cutting-room floor – and had its shocking ending (I won’t give anything away here) been more in tune with the film’s antiheroism, anti-war message.

Another good Monicelli film came out in 1962: The Passionate Thief / Risate di gioia, starring Anna Magnani as a struggling actress, Ben Gazzara as a conniving charmer, and Totò as a befuddled small-time actor.

Much like The Great War, The Organizer, which stars a geekish Marcello Mastroianni in the title role, follows turn-of-the-century Turin textile factory workers attempting to form a labor union. The ending is just as shocking as the one found in The Great War, but unlike the former film The Organizer wraps things up in a coherent – and deeply moving – manner. (In addition to Monicelli, The Organizer screenwriters were frequent collaborators Furio Scarpelli and Agenore Incrocci.)

There were many other Monicelli efforts worth mentioning. Here are a few: Casanova 70 (1962), which starred Mastroianni and earned Monicelli (and his co-screenwriters) an Oscar nod for best original screenplay; L’armata Brancaleone / For Love and Gold (1966), with Vittorio Gassman as a poor but proud knight; and the Oscar-nominated The Girl with a Pistol (1968), about a “dishonored” Sicilian woman (Monica Vitti) out to kill the man who deflowered her.

Also, Amici miei / My Friends (1975), a comedy with more than a few elements in common with this summer’s Adam Sandler vehicle Grown Ups; and Alberto Sordi’s brutal drama Un borghese piccolo piccolo / An Average Little Man (1977), in which Sordi avenges the death of his son, killed in an armed robbery.

(Some years ago, while at a UCLA retrospective Sordi himself said his character’s sadism appalled him and that the film’s backers had insisted on the explicit violence. Sordi wanted his vengeful borghese to actually feel compassion for the killer, who happened to be about the same age as his dead son.)

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Monicelli’s last directorial effort was the 2008 short Vicino al Colosseo c’è Monti. His last feature film was Le rose del deserto / The Roses of the Desert (2006), starring Michele Placido.

It’s a sad irony that Monicelli’s own ending was as shocking as those of several of his best-known films.

Also this year, Italian cinema has lost Dino De Laurentiis and Monicelli screenplay collaborator Suso Cecchi D’Amico.

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