Museum of Modern Art salutes Italian comedy master Dino Risi

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Italian filmmaker Dino Risi (1917-2008) is the subject of a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art that runs through January 6. In collaboration with Luce Cinecittá, the Museum is screening the writer-director’s popular narrative features of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s that are mostly commedia all’Italiana or “Italian-style comedy.” The retrospective also includes the Milan-born filmmaker’s newly discovered documentary shorts, many of which were filmed in the wake of World War II.

The Risi festival is an entry in MoMA’s yearly tribute to Italian film, and consists of 14 newly struck prints, as well as a 4K restoration of Risi’s masterpiece, Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life, 1962), the story of a shy student (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and the charming but irresponsible companion (Vittorio Gassman) with whom he takes to the road.

A popular and successful moviemaker, Risi is a household name in Italy; like many filmmakers of his generation, his first efforts were in the neorealist style, evinced in such short documentaries as Verso la Vita (To Life, 1947), about urban children orphaned by war; Buio in Sala (A Dark Room, 1948), in which Risi turns his camera on people watching a film in a movie theatre; and La Fabbrica del Duomo (The Duomo’s Factory, 1949), a fascinating look at the craftsmen who make repairs to Milan’s cathedral and its statues. All screened in their original 35mm black-and-white formats.

Before beginning his long career in the cinema, Risi was a medical doctor whose practice was devoted to psychiatry. That discipline served him well in his second career: Risi’s talent lay in his deconstruction of Italian cinema stereotypes. Bruno (Gassman) in Il Sorpasso is the best example. He represents the dark side of the charismatic males who glide through classic Italian movies—think Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). While they are portrayed as lovable womanizers and cads, and celebrated for their narcissism, Bruno is amoral, a chaotic and destructive force, superficially wrapped in that irresistible package of masculine bravado. It is no wonder that Roberto (Trintignant), who lacks the courage to approach a woman he has long admired, is at first wary, but then quickly taken in by Bruno’s free-spirited lifestyle.

The movie’s title, Il Sorpasso, literally translates as “the overtaking,” a far more accurate description of the narrative than its commonly used English title. Most of the action takes place in Bruno’s old sports car as he and Roberto speed through Rome and outside of it, “overtaking” every other vehicle on the road. Bruno also runs roughshod over Roberto’s insistence that he must study for an upcoming exam, dragging him along on an aimless road trip through the countryside. Roberto’s trepidation dissipates with the heady experience of dispensing with his own responsibilities, if only for the weekend, but the movie ends on a disturbing note. Risi’s keen sensibilities, honed no doubt through his clinical experience, result in a profound portrait of the destructive effect of Bruno’s self-centeredness, at the same time that the audience may be reveling in the character’s irreverence and sardonic humor.

Risi turns that discerning gaze on other Italian stereotypes, such as the mammone or mama’s boy, most amusingly in Il Segno di Venere (The Sign of Venus, 1955), and the meddling mother-in-law, for instance, in La Nonna Sabella (1957). Both are considered films of the commedia all’Italiana era, although Risi objected to that term; in a 1980 interview, he called it “pejorative,” suggesting “Italian comedy” or “realistic comedy” instead, the “heir to neorealism.” It is a distinction that gets to the core of Italian sensibilities. “Comedy” in the Italian cinema is always tinged with tragic elements; while Americans might call Il Segno and Nonna romantic comedies, the plight of the lovelorn characters drives the plot, yet their desires are never realized.

In il Segno, that character is Cesira (Franca Valeri), a plain but kindhearted woman who cannot find a lover, sometimes because she is upstaged by her beautiful cousin (a very young and slender Sophia Loren). In Nonna, it is the title character, a controlling grandmother (Tina Pica, who speaks in her native Neapolitan accent) whose childhood lover still pursues her, even though he is married to another woman. If Risi’s Freudian preoccupation with sexual repression informs many of his characters, fortunately it yields hilarious results. While these films have already screened at the festival, audiences can still enjoy the talents of some of Italy’s most versatile and talented actors before Christmas, including Valeri and Alberto Sordi in the dark comedy Il Vedovo (The Widower, 1959) and Sordi and Nino Manfredi in Venice, the Moon and You (1958), both screening as new 35mm prints.

Luce Cinecittá’s restoration of Il Sorpasso is the highlight of the Risi retrospective; although it, too, has already screened, the black-and-white film is likely to pop up again in repertory programs because of the quality of the 4K restoration. (4K is the latest technology in film restoration; it allows custom repairs to be made to the soundtrack as well as to the image.) Vittorio Gassman fans who missed Il Sorpasso can still see the actor in Il Gaucho (1965), Risi’s sendup of film types, and in the political satire In Nome del Popolo Italiano (In the Name of the Italian People, 1971). Gassman also stars in Risi’s Scent of a Woman (1974), the precursor to Martin Brest’s 1992 movie with Al Pacino. Other films screening after Christmas feature Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi and Catherine Deneuve as a repressed housewife in Anima Persa (Lost Soul, 1977), released ten years after her breakthrough “housewife” role in Luis Buñuel’s classic Belle du Jour.