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Mario Monicelli was a film director who, more than anyone else, was able to capture the true spirit of the Italian comedy on the silver screen, especially in the 1950s and 60s. His movies reflect how things really were, and he created characters whose actions could have been those of your next-door neighbor. In fact, the lifestyle and values that shaped a nation could be found in his films.
Monicelli was born in Tuscany and always maintained the rural, leftist attitudes very common in that part of Italy. He started working as a director right in the middle of Mussolini's regime, which he fought against his entire life. Indeed, besides his phenomenal artistic achievements, Monicelli will surely be remembered for his firm political views.
Mario Monicelli: L'Armata Brancaleone
Regardless of the tough way in which he presented himself, often appearing to be involved in his own thoughts and social statements, Monicelli's work reflected a very unique style and a distinct way of communicating. He chose comedy as his favorite genre and most of his films were about producing a few laughs, even when dealing with serious subjects. His main aim was to amuse the audience, without using cliches. This was especially important at the start of his career, when right after World War II, the country needed to be up-lifted by laughter and positivity. Monicelli had a way of telling stories in a lighthearted way, without being banal or obvious, which was very successful. However, his great achievements were made possible by working with some of the best Italian comedians, such as Toto, Alberto Sordi, Vittorio Gassman, and Ugo Tognazzi, just to mention a few.
Mario Monicelli: La Grande Guerra
His films described three generations of Italians and were always right to the point, affecting cultures, even abroad. Regardless of cultural background, we can all definitely appreciate a true masterpiece like Guardie e Ladri, starring the duo of Toto and Aldo Fabrizi, who continued working together and often with Monicelli for many years. Toward the end of the 1960s Italy started producing more color films and dropped the black and white, defining not only a technological change but also a shift of generations as well, just as happened in America. Monicelli understood that change, while others could not keep up, and he went on to direct another film destined to become a cinematic monument, L'Armata Brancaleone (For Love and Gold). This was followed by Brancaleone alle Crociate (Brancaleone at the Crusades) in which Monicelli was able to make fun of Italian society and its way of life, especially its organization, by telling a story that went back in history. This was one of the first attempts of that kind in world cinema, and a very successful one.
Monicelli was also one of the pioneers in the concept of franchising films. After the Brancaleone series he started one of the most hilarious trilogies of film: Amici Miei (My friends). Three movies that cover 15 years and describe the long lasting friendship of four friends in Florence. Monicelli didn't direct the third installment, but his touch is all over the films. In 1981, alongside a very inspired Alberto Sordi, Monicelli directed Il Marchese del Grillo, a film about Rome during the Papal Kingdom. This was a huge costume production, an historic piece in which comedy and history merged beautifully. After that he continued on, and in 1986 he put together his last masterpiece and once again he anticipated the new trends. He made a modern comedy based on women, Speriamo che sia femmina, in which a cast of several women interact, long before the likes of Almodovar, Sex and the City, and the media revolution of the 1990s. And one of Monicelli's most famous films I Soliti Ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street) was remade by Hollywood and starred George Clooney. The film was Welcome to Collinwood. Of course, Monicelli gave us a number of dramas as well as comedies, but his strength was comedy and it is for this that he will be remembered.
Like many other masters of comedy, he was not the most social person. He was often distant and carried a certain melancholy, especially in the last 20 years of his life when he worked less. After his long career, at the age of 95, he jumped out of a hospital window to put an end to his life in a most tragic and dramatic way. We have to ask ourselves if maybe he was trying to tell us something in his films, something more than a laugh, and that we missed his true messages beyond that. What might those old movies tell us if we looked at them again? Or maybe the mind and heart of a creative master is just far too complex, and all we would see was exactly, and only, what he wished us to.