Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
This 1955 work from director Mario Monicelli unspools with an ease that belies its absurd subject matter. Alberto Sordi plays Menichetti, a man so anxious to maintain his meager social standing that he just about negates himself. He runs away from car accidents lest he be questioned by the police, he assiduously avoids political affiliation, and when his boss (he works for an industrial milliner) asks him to wear an out-of-fashion hat for a few days, he does so without complaint; he even records the reactions he gets from bemused bystanders.
Monicelli has a knack for camouflaging the control he exerts over his material: the movie is highly organized yet it seems to develop by entropy. In fact, it’s downright difficult to discern a form in it; individual scenes aren’t shaped but simply well up, then trickle into subsequent scenes, like rivulets in search of a puddle. This gives the movie a pleasing, all-over wiggliness, a bit reminiscent of a chalk drawing by Cy Twombly. It’s an odd stylistic choice for comedy, because it gives the audience so little to sink its teeth into, but it has a blending effect on the episodic screenplay, and it underscores Menichetti’s submissiveness. The plot is every bit as niggly as he is.
It’s possible to take the movie as social commentary. Italy in 1955 was still rebounding from the war, cowed by her loss and negotiating the after effects of Fascism’s hyper masculinity. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Italian films of this period reflected an anxiety regarding men which had never before been seen in movies. The principle example is Fellini’s “I Vitelloni,” an incisive but sensitive look at a group of loafers too old to be treated like children yet too disaffected to function as grownups. Menichetti is a neurotic-slapstick variant of the “I Vitelloni” type. To be sure, he’s more of an adult than Fellini’s veal-calves, but it’s an adulthood built on nonsense rituals — and all of them serving to betray Menichetti’s basic dignity, to emasculate him. By the end of the film Menichetti has lost whatever standing he once had — he’s become the equivalent of a terrorist, a statutory rapist, a cuckold. And all despite his straining to remain respectable.
The Italian film industry’s skeptical attitude towards masculinity during this period constitutes one of Italy’s great gifts to world cinema. In the ’60s it spawned a string of corrosively funny works directed by men like Pietro Germi, Alberto Lattuada (who has a bit role in “A Hero of Our Times”), Dino Risi, and Marco Ferreri, filmmakers whose comic temperaments allowed them to skewer patriarchal social conventions in ways both rueful and deeply funny. Their work makes for a sharp contrast with the angry, head-on approach favored by English-language directors like Tony Richardson, whose “Look Back in Anger” starred Richard Burton as a veritable anti-Menichetti — a man incensed rather than tyrannized by his state of disenfranchisement. Monicelli himself returned to this territory in 1975 with “My Friends.” A big hit in Europe (it spawned a few sequels), it suggests “I Vitelloni” set among an older cohort, and it has some of the anarcho-surrealist spirit of “Zero for Conduct.”
These films had quite a legacy. Their echoes are discernible in Ferreri’s wild sex blow-outs of the ’70s and early ’80s as well as in the works of French director Bertrand Blier. Blier’s father Bernard had been a mainstay of Italian pop cinema during the ’60s and ’70s (he played a Menichetti-like patsy in “My Friends”), and one suspects the younger Blier, having grown up around this tradition, was steeped in its sensibility.
Unfortunately, a lot of this material is not available on DVD in the States. Still, you can get a good sense of it by checking out Criterion’s editions of Germi’s “Seduced and Abandoned” and “Divorce, Italian Style.” Criterion has also released Lattuada’s “Mafioso” and Monicelli’s “Big Deal on Madonna Street.” Though these are ostensibly crime films, they exhibit some of the traits I’ve discussed in this post, and they’re good movies regardless. Lattuada’s exceptionally well-tailored “The Overcoat” is also available on disc. If you can track it down, Risi’s “Il Sorpasso” is a lot of fun; it’s a portrayal of two dudes on the run from convention and respectability, and it’s supposed to have been a big influence on “Easy Rider.” I can also recommend Ferreri’s “Queen Bee” (also known as “The Conjugal Bed”). Thematically speaking, it’s the ur-text of Ferreri movies, and I think it’s a heckuva lot better than his somewhat similar “The Harem.”