By G. Allen Johnson Published 6:57 pm, Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Photo: Janus Films 1962
Something was happening in Italy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Bombed out and with incalculable losses at the end of World War II, its misery and suffering were reflected in the nation’s key films in the 1940s — “Rome, Open City” and “Bicycle Thieves.”
A decade later, bicycles had been replaced by cars — fast cars. An economic boom had created an affluent new lifestyle. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone was dressing well, at parties, at the beach, living the easy life — la dolce vita.
As Shawn Levy writes in his irresistible new book, “Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome,” the Eternal City was “once again the capital of the world — a new world, built of stardust and chic clothes and the titillation of scandal and the buzz of motor scooter engines and the flash of camera bulbs.”
But step outside Rome, beyond the Via Veneto, and cracks were already showing. Those cracks were exploited masterfully by the comic films of Dino Risi — four of which will be shown Saturday, April 22, at the Castro Theatre in the annual Italian film program by the Italian Cultural Institute and Cinema Italia San Francisco.
There are two masterpieces — “Il sorpasso” (1962), one of the great road movies of all time, and the original (and far superior) “Scent of a Woman” — “Profumo di donna” (1974), along with two other small gems: “Love and Larceny” (“Il mattatore,” 1960) and the 1963 omnibus film “I mostri” (“The Monsters”).
All have been restored and sparkle onscreen. To see the whole series — which includes an evening party — is to lose yourself in a daylong la dolce vita.
The series is also a joyful referendum on the work of actor Vittorio Gassman, who is your guide through this vibrant era in all four films. Gassman, who had a brief Hollywood career in the early 1950s, and an even briefer marriage to Shelley Winters, was Italy’s top Shakespearean tragedian onstage before improbably becoming its best comedic film actor.
Nowhere is he — or Risi — better than in “Il sorpasso,” written by the future acclaimed filmmaker Etore Scola. The simple plot: Two strangers, the boisterous bon vivant Bruno (Gassman) and the stuffed-shirt young law student Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) head on a journey outside Rome. Instigated by Bruno, the car trip ostensibly is to a nearby place for lunch. Instead, it becomes a two-day odyssey of endless driving and stops at cafes, nightclubs, woman chasing (mainly by Bruno) and the familial past of both men.
Risi clearly intends Gassman to represent the new Italian male, who is more than a tad full of himself. Egotistical, his sports car an extension of his own masculinity (with an annoying musical horn blast that gets plenty of comic mileage in the film), Bruno is the embodiment of the young Italian seeking immediate pleasure at the expense of long-term happiness.
“Il sorpasso” translates literally as “the overtaking,” which is specifically used by Italians as “to pass with an automobile,” or “to surpass or excel.” To underline the automobile as status symbol, in that era, cool dudes became sorpassare, someone who excels socially, morally, sexually and politically. To be sorpassato (surpassed), like Roberto, is bad for your dignity and reputation.
The seeds of “Il sorpasso” are sown in “Love and Larceny,” not a masterpiece, but perhaps the most purely entertaining film of the series. Gassman plays an aspiring actor who can’t find work, so he uses his thespian talents in the service of a con man. The film works not only as a satire on Italians’ quest for short cuts to the easy life, but also as an ironic celebration of marriage, which Gassman refers to as “like a prison sentence” (he is “tamed” by his wife, a former actress).
“Love and Larceny” screens in a crisp new 35mm print, as does “I mostri,” essentially 20 short films starring either Gassman or Ugo Tognazzi, which skims the surface of several of Risi’s beefs with Italian culture in an emptying-the-notebook, scattershot feel.
Risi (1916-2008) initially trained as a psychiatrist and fell into filmmaking by accident, making very serious postwar documentaries. That transitioned into one of Italy’s foremost comedic filmmakers seems incredible, but it makes sense given his education. His analytical insight into the mind of the modern Italian allowed a fun-loving generation to laugh at itself.
Dino Risi: A Film Series screens Saturday, April 22. Schedule: “Love and Larceny” (1 p.m.), “Scent of a Woman” (3:30 p.m.), “Il sorpasso” (6 p.m.), party (8:30 p.m.), “I mostri” (10 p.m.). Tickets: $12 per screening; $15 for party; daylong pass $60. At the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F. (415) 621-6120. www.castrotheatre.com.