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Jean-Louis Trintignant, at left, plays Roberto and Vittorio Gassman plays Bruno in the brilliant 1962 film “Il Sorpasso,” also called “The Easy Life.

The History of the Italian Cinema and the Rise of Slap Sticks

Part 4 – Commedia all’italiana

Although comedy and the inducement of laughter predates recorded history – as long as there have been banana peels, someone has slipped on one; it has taken on many forms. The slapstick-style is an Italian creation, called ‘batacchio.’ It is far more humorous to watch than to describe. It is a form of humor involving exaggerated physical activity which exceeds the boundaries of normal physical comedy. See what I mean? The term arose from a device developed as Commedia dell’arte in 16th century Italy. The “slap stick” consists of two thin slats of wood made from splitting a single long stick, which make a ‘slap’ when striking another actor. Very little force is needed to make a loud, comical sound.

A confluence of economic prosperity, skilled directors, screenwriters at the top of their game and equally gifted actors created a perfect storm of talent to birth Commedia all’italiana. This film genre translates as “comedy, the Italian way” or Italian-style comedy. Rather than a specific genre, the term indicates a period, from the late fifties to the early seventies, when the Italian film industry produced brilliant comedies using some common traits, such as a satire on manners and convention and a strong focus on “spicy” social issues of the period, with farcical overtones. Often dark comedies, these movies still stand up decades after their release.

As Italy was experiencing a kind of economic freedom in the decades following the end of the Second World War, directors and writers in the film world began making commercial comedies. In reality, the films of the Commedia all’italiana era were diabolically critical and pointed at the heart of politics and society.

While Italians may love slapstick, they also enjoy irony and wordplay and in Commedia all’italiana films, they were certainly ready to laugh at their countrymen. The film industry was booming during the 60s, due in no small part to the popularity of these Commedia all’italiana films, which actually helped, or even forced the viewer into a greater awareness of conflicting values, by attacking age-old prejudices and questioning the rules of entrenched institutions and society’s elite. A case in point is “Divorce: Italian-style,” directed by Pietro Germi and released in 1961. It is about a bored Sicilian gentleman, Ferdinando Cefalù, brilliantly played by Marcello Mastroianni, who wants to murder his wife so he can marry his younger mistress. Just to break out of all social conventions, his mistress happens to be his first cousin. At that time, almost 60 years ago, divorce was still against the law in Italy. Ferdinando spends his free time imagining several ways in which he can do away with his wife. He becomes inspired to set up his wife to have an affair so that he can catch her in the act and kill her in an act of passion. This dark comedic tale was in response to Italy’s light sentences that were handed down for what was considered an honorable crime. Mastroianni pouts, frets, daydreams and has the audience rooting for him the entire time. To be fair, his wife is quite annoying. Mastroianni was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal.

Mario Monicelli was responsible for the purported first Commedia all’italiana film – “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” released 60 years ago in June, 1958. Among the masterpieces of Italian cinema, the film is a comedy about a group of small-time thieves and ne’er-do-wells, who bungle an attempt to burgle a state-run pawn shop in Rome. It spawned two sequels, one in 1960 and another in 1987.

“Il Sorpasso,” whose English title is “The Easy Life,” is a 1962 Italian cult movie comedy film co-written and directed by Dino Risi. It is one of the most famous examples of the Italian comedy style. The film starts in a hazy, sunbaked and seemingly empty Rome on an August morning during Ferragosto. The day soon brings together a timid law student, Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a 40-ish man named Bruno, (Vittorio Gassman) and Bruno’s convertible Lancia Aurelia. “Il Sorpasso” means overtaking in Italian and the two-day trip/adventure of the men create the subplots throughout this must-see dark comedy.

Director Monicelli said it best. He described the Italian comedy as being something very simple, but closely tied to popular culture of Italy. To analyze the genre is to see each as a tangle of stories of the poor and unfortunate who typically hatch a scheme to get rich quick. The plot of the story revolves around seemingly unnecessary misunderstandings of those who attempt to ‘cheat’ society, which allow the viewer to have a clear and precise vision of the deficiencies of the protagonists. The group of cheaters usually believe that they have gotten away with their plan, only to find that at the end, they themselves have been duped or apprehended. Although this does not sound like rip-roaring fun, the characters are always endearing. Although their blunders are predictable in their final form, how they arrive at the nexus is the essence of the humor which builds and the audience finds themselves hoping against all hope that for once, the villain, who is also the hero, will get it right.

Vittorio Gassman, Ugo Tognazzi, Alberto Sordi and Nino Manfredi were the four top stars of Italian comedy in the 1960s and 1970s, with dramatic stars in comic roles such as Marcello Mastroianni, Enrico Maria Salerno and Claudia Cardinale bringing depth and resonance to this marvelous comedic landscape. The next time you are in the mood for a laugh – think Commedia all’italiana!