Posted by Susan Doll on June 30, 2008
Italian director Dino Risi died on June 7, but he did not receive the blitz of attention that other prominent filmmakers did upon their passing. There were many obituaries from newspapers and magazines available on the Internet, but none of those appreciation-style articles that circulated when Sydney Pollack, Anthony Minghella, or even Carlo Ponti died (“Remembering Sydney Pollack”; “Honoring Anthony Minghella”; “The Man Sophia Loved.”). I would guess that his name was not recognizable enough to warrant that level of attention, and his films are not widely available on DVD or even VHS, making access to his work difficult.
I have only seen two Risi films — The Easy Life (Il Sorpasso, 1962) and Scent of a Woman (Profumo di Donna, 1974). The latter was remade by Martin Brest in 1992 and starred Al Pacino in one of his Oscar-winning roles. That fact alone would seem to be enough to garner Risi some attention, even if only to compare the two versions of the films. Yet, I found very little written in the aftermath of his death that helped me learn more about him, or, more importantly, put his films into perspective. (The obituary in the London Times dated June 10, available at TimesOnline is a notable exception.) The oversight prompted me to poke around Risi’s life and work and offer my discoveries to others who might be interested in the films of this great director.
Born in 1916, Risi was 91 when he died, leaving behind over 50 features, numerous documentaries from his early career, episodes for several omnibuses, and a handful of films for Italian television. His impressive career stretched from the late 1940s to 2002. His films won or were nominated for most of the major international awards. Scent of a Woman represents a career high point in that regard because it won a Cesar Award for Best Foreign Film (France’s version of the Oscars), a David di Donatello Award for Best Director (Italy’s version of the Oscars), and it was nominated for Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film.
Risi was the son of a prominent doctor from Milan and, following in his father’s footsteps, first pursued a career in medicine, specializing in psychiatry. Some obits for Risi offer this as evidence of the dimension and depth found in his solidly drawn characters, but this seems too easy of a conclusion to draw. Movie characters are not real human beings whose behavior can psychoanalyzed or compared to the complexities of human emotions. They are the expressions of the filmmaker(s)’ ideas and/or the reflections of the culture/era the film was made in. Movie characters follow the rules of drama, not necessarily the patterns of human behavior. So, I dug a little deeper into Risi’s background for a better understanding of his work.
Though his career stretches back to the era of Italian neorealism, he came into his own in 1956 with the release of Poor but Beautiful (Poveri ma Belli). The film is considered a watershed in the development of a style of Italian comedy of the 1950s and 1960s called commedia all’Italiano, or “comedy, Italian style.” Commedia all’Italiano was a smart style of satire that was critical of Italy’s changing society, especially the effect on traditional morality and values. It was not the type of comedy that made you hold your sides and laugh out loud, nor did it lampoon subjects through exaggeration. It was born out of observation of the trials and ordeals of everyday life, combined with a desire to chronicle and criticize the new Italy, which was experiencing a booming economy for the first time in decades. The boom brought prosperity, new housing, new industries, and modern consumer goods that everyone just had to have. It also brought political and social corruption and a lapse in traditional values as people embraced fast money, fast cars, and fast times.
After learning about commedia all’Italiano, I found more to appreciate in The Easy Life. I had always found the film a high-spirited adventure made on a modest budget and influenced by the breezy style of the French New Wave, but now I see it as the embodiment of comedy, Italian style. The deceptively simple story follows the adventures of Roberto, a young college student who is persuaded to hit the road with Bruno, an older playboy. Bruno drives a gleaming white sports way too fast, and he honks the cutesy-sounding horn way too much; the car makes a nice symbol of Bruno’s larger-than-life but invasive presence. My favorite part of Bruno’s car is the tiny record player built into the dashboard. In one scene, Roberto pops in a favorite record as the old man who is their temporary passenger looks on in wonder. (This is the pre-audiocassette era but who knew there were cars equipped with record players!).
The pair whiz past newly built apartment buildings that all look alike, stop by a popular but overly crowded new tourist spot along the beach, talk about modern alienation as revealed in the new Antonioni movie, and listen to new music in Bruno’s high-priced sports car — all the result of the economic prosperity and consumerism foisted on the public by marketing and advertising.
The audience identifies with Roberto, and sometimes the camera is positioned in the car’s back seat, creating the illusion that we are riding along with the pair and are part of the party. Like Roberto, we are repelled by Bruno (the embodiment of the new Italy), who is rude, crass, and disrespectful of religion, monogamy, and other traditional values. But, also like Roberto, we are attracted to this handsome playboy, because he is sexy, fun, and just too hip for the room. Yet, we are right to be wary of him, and at the end of the film, we discover the consequences of his lifestyle and its influence on a new generation. The film’s title, The Easy Way, has a double meaning; it not only refers to Bruno’s preferred lifestyle but it was also contemporary slang for Italy’s economic boom.
Bruno is played by Vittorio Gassman, an actor who became a major star of this genre, though he may be better known to American audiences as Mr. Shelley Winters. (They were married from 1952 to 1954.) More importantly, Gassman was Risi’s favorite actor, and the pair made 15 films together. Many of them examined the ongoing virtues and lost values of Italy in the 1960s and 1970s.
After commedia all’Italiano faded, Risi’s work grew more melancholy. But, he and Gassman continued their collaboration, resulting in their most famous film together, Scent of a Woman. It’s hard not to compare Risi’s film with its Hollywood counterpart, but it would not be fair to judge which film is better based on their differences. Risi’s film was produced in the Italian film industry, expresses his themes and style, and reflects Italian culture of the 1970s; Martin Brest’s version was produced in Hollywood; expresses different themes in a different style, and reflects American culture of the 1990s. It’s an apples-and-oranges exercise. I will say that Gassman is terrific as the Captain, that Risi’s use of color paints an almost impressionistic portrait of Italy that made me want to hop the next flight to Rome, and that you won’t be disappointed if you track down this film — or any film by Risi — for your viewing pleasure.
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