Mario Monicelli, the father of Italian comedy

monicelli

monicelli

Mario Monicelli, the father of Italian comedy

“A comedy that is ironic, sometimes bitter, in some cases even dramatic, tragic.” That is how Mario Monicelli once defined Italian comedy. Considered the father of Italian comedy, he was a director of 70 films, often focusing on stories about ordinary people confronted by extraordinary circumstances, which earned him plenty of awards and the acclaim of critics across the globe.

But how did it all start? Mario Monicelli was born in Rome in 1915, the youngest son of journalist Tommaso Monicelli. While his brothers were as devoted to journalism as their father, Mario entered into the film world through his friendship with Giacomo Forzano, son of the playwright Giovacchino Forzano, who had been commissioned by Benito Mussolini to create cinema studios in Tirrenia.

An intelligent youngster, directing short films while still in his teens, Monicelli co-directed his first full feature, I ragazzi della via Paal (The Boys of Via Paal), with Alberto Mondadori; it was presented at the Venice Film Festival in 1935.

A crucial figure in Monicelli’s career was Steno (the artistic name of Stefano Vanzina), whom Monicelli met in 1949. The pair went on to co-direct several films such as 1951’s Guardie e Ladri (Cops and Robbers), featuring Aldo Fabrizi and famed Neapolitan comic Totò. From 1953 on, Mario Monicelli decided to work alone as director.

Monicelli was not only a mastermind in directing but also a man with sharp eyes when he saw talent. He helped launch the careers of Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale and Vittorio Gassman, with his 1958 film I Soliti Ignoti — released in the US as Big Deal on Madonna Street and in the UK as Persons Unknown, known as the first true “commedia all'italiana.” The film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 31st Academy Awards.

In 1959 Monicelli released La Grande Guerra (The Great War), regarded as his finest work. The movie earned the director a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and an Academy Award nomination for the Best Foreign Film. More films of great success followed, including Amici miei (My Friends, 1975) and Caro Michele (1976), winner of the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 26th Berlin International Film Festival, among others. His last feature film was The Roses of the Desert (Le rose del deserto, 2006), which he directed when he was 91 years old.

Mario Monicelli died aged 95 after he leapt from the fifth floor of a Rome hospital where he was being treated for terminal cancer.

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